York (explorer)

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York (1770–1822[citation needed]) was an African-American slave best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Enslaved by William Clark, he performed hard manual labor without pay,[1] but participated as a full member of the expedition. Like many other expedition members, his ultimate fate is unclear. There is evidence that after the expedition's return, Clark had difficulty compelling York to resume his former status, and York may have later escaped or been freed, but nothing is entirely clear on this.[2]

Early and family life[edit]

York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He, his father, his mother (Rose) and younger sister and brother (Nancy and Juba), were enslaved by the Clark family.[3] York was William Clark's servant from boyhood, and was left to William in his father's will.[4] He had a wife whom he rarely saw, and likely lost contact with her after 1811 when she was sold/sent to Mississippi. It is not known if York fathered any children.[5]

Lewis and Clark Expedition[edit]

In 1804, Clark took his slave York when he joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition. York was a large, strong man who shared the duties and risks of the expedition,[6] and was the expedition's only African-American slave member. The expedition's journals record the assignments given him, and attest to his skill in scouting, hunting and field medicine, as well as manual labor in extreme weather conditions. York also demonstrated heroic bravery in saving Lewis from a grizzly bear. York also saved Clark's life by risking his own and saving him from a flash flood [7] York used a firearm to hunt game such as bison, as well as for "protection". The native nations treated York with respect, and he "played a key role in diplomatic relations" because of his appearance.[8] When the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, York voted along with the rest as to where to build winter quarters. As well as helping with everything York was concerned for the safety of everyone on the expedition, especially for Clark's. There is a story of York risking his life and going out in a storm to search for Clark, Sacagewea, her husband and her child. York found Clark who noted how concerned he was for Clark's life knowing that he could have been in danger.[9]

York also had a different side as a play-actor and practical joker. In a record from Clark's journals he described a scene in which York was being a joker around an Indian tribe called the Arikaras. According to Clark his antics went a little too far. York's performance was intended as a joke but as Clark described it "he carried on the joke." [9]

Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable.[10] After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. According to one account discussed below, Clark eventually gave him his freedom.

It is shown that York had gained a little freedom while on the expedition with Lewis and Clark. It is mentioned in journals that York went on scouting trips and going to trade with villages so he saw what freedom was like while doing that. He might have also been shown respect by Clark because Clark named two geographically discoveries after him; York's Eight Islands and York's Dry Creek. Also they took a poll of where they should stay over one winter and York's opinion was recorded even though it was last. This shows that York had a taste of freedom and possibly gained some respect by the fellow travelers on the expedition.[11]

Ultimate fate[edit]

As to York's later life and death, semi-contemporaries Washington Irving and Zenas Leonard give contradictory accounts. When Irving interviewed Clark in 1832, Clark claimed to have freed York, but that York regretted being free because he was a failure at business, and died trying to get back to serve his master as a slave again in St. Louis. Some contemporary historians doubt the accuracy of Clark's story, for it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people.[12] However, manumission laws and practices of the era often required freed slaves to leave the area, and their family and friends.

Betts and Áhati N. N. Touré[citation needed] suggest that York simply refused to return to Clark, and escaped to freedom. Leonard reported meeting with an African man living among the Crows in north-central Wyoming in 1834, writing:

In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark — with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since - which is about ten or twelve years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately.[13]

York had experienced freedom on his adventures with Lewis and Clark. He was part of the team and he contributed just like the rest with hunting, fishing, putting up tents etc. He had crossed rivers and mountains on the expedition and had a taste of what true freedom is like. On the expedition he felt like a free man and then when he returned east he was a slave again, in a world where there was slavery and bondage.[7]

According to yet another source, York continued to work for Clark as a slave after the expedition. York asked for his freedom and at first Clark refused, but did send him to Kentucky so he could be closer to his wife. Ten years after the expedition Clark granted York his freedom and York worked in the freighting business in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1832 York died from cholera [9]


A statue of York, by sculptor Ed Hamilton, with plaques commemorating the Lewis and Clark Expedition and his participation in it, stands at Louisville's Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, next to the wharf on the Ohio River. Another statue of York stands on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Dedicated on May 8, 2010, it does not focus on York's face, since no images of York are known to exist. Instead, it features fragments of William Clark's maps "scarred" on the statue's back.[14]

The opera "York" (composer Bruce Trinkley and librettist Jason Charnesky), based on York's life, was composed for the first international conference on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and performed at Penn State Opera Theatre.[15]

Yorks Islands are an archipelago of islands in the Missouri River near Broadwater County, Montana,[16][17] which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named "York's 8 Islands,"[18] but have since become known as "Yorks Islands" or simply "York Island". The naming of "Yorks 8 Islands" is not found in the narrative journals of Lewis and Clark. Instead it is found in Clark's tabulations of "Creeks and Rivers," by the entry, "Yorks 8 Islands."[19] The Lewis and Clark Expedition also named another geographical feature for York, "York's Dry Creek", a tributary of the Yellowstone River, in Custer County, Montana.[20] This name was later abandoned, and the creek was renamed "Custer Creek".

In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of honorary sergeant in the United States Army.[21] Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker has written two books of poetry about York: Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (2004), and When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (2008). Both books were published by the University of Kentucky Press. In his novel Little Big Man, Thomas Berger mentions York as having likely been the father of some very dark skinned Indians.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Betts, In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific With Lewis and Clark. University Press of Colorado, 1985 (revised 2002).
  • James Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. Yale University Press, 2002, 2nd Printing
  • Catherine McGrew Jaime, York Proceeded On: The Lewis & Clark Expedition through the Eyes of Their Forgotten Member. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011


  1. ^ The Slave Who Went with Them, Brian Hall, Time, June 2002
  2. ^ William Clark: Indian diplomat Jay Buckley, University Oklahoma Press, 2008, pg 20
  3. ^ Áhati N. N. Touré (April 2006). "Fallout over Freedom". Lewis and Clark.org. Retrieved March 6, 2008. 
  4. ^ *William English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778–1783, and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1896, p. 49.
  5. ^ "The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery". United States National Park Service. April 2006. Retrieved March 6, 2008. 
  6. ^ "Lewis and Clark Journals (citations to "York")". Lewis and Clark.org. Retrieved March 7, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/living/idx_5.html
  8. ^ Jay Buckley, William Clark: Indian Diplomat, University Oklahoma Press, 2008, pp. 20, 59.
  9. ^ a b c "Lewis and Clark, Inside the Corps, York". PBS. Retrieved June 16, 2015. 
  10. ^ Robert Betts (1985). In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark. Colorado Associated University Press. ISBN 0-87081-714-0.  page citation needed
  11. ^ http://0-web.b.ebscohost.com.dunnlib.simpson.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=3a67c719-8ccf-433b-9715-3faa4c9eeeef%40sessionmgr113&hid=101&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVybCx1aWQsY29va2llJnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=a9h&AN=6902662
  12. ^ York of the Corps of Discovery: Interpretations of York's Character and His Role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Darrell Millner, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2003, pg 10, 13-4, 57.
  13. ^ Zenas Leonard (1839). "Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard". Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  14. ^ "The Source". Lewis and Clark College. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  15. ^ "York: The Voice of Freedom". Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved March 6, 2008. [dead link]
  16. ^ U.S. Board on Geographic Names, listing for "York's Island".
  17. ^ Crimson Bluffs Chapter, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc., Dedication Ceremony for York's Islands Fishing Access Commemoration.
  18. ^ Copy of Captain William Clark's map for July 24, 1805 with "York's 8 Islands" marked in his handwriting.
  19. ^ PBS, "Inside the Corps", Article on "York".
  20. ^ York Islands Lewis and Clark.
  21. ^ "President Clinton: Celebrating the Legacy of Lewis and Clark and Preserving America's Natural Treasures". FirstGov. January 17, 2001. Retrieved 2010-12-19. 

External links[edit]