York (explorer)

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York – "Corps of Discovery Explorer"
York Statue.jpg
Diedbefore 1832
OccupationExplorer, Businessman, and Enslaved by William Clark.
MovementLewis and Clark Expedition
Parent(s)Old York, Rose
RelativesJuba (brother), Nancy (sister), Scipio (half-brother), Daphney (half-sister)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1803–1806
Ranksergeant (honorary posthumous – Presidential citation)
UnitCorps of Discovery

York (1770s–before 1832[1]) was the only African American on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the first African American to have crossed North America to reach the Pacific.[1] York was born enslaved, the son of Old York and Rose who were the slaves of John Clark III, William Clark's father.[2] York was William Clark's lifelong body servant willed to him by his father on July 24, 1799. York was a few years younger than Clark but very large and naturally strong.[3] After experiencing an unprecedented amount of freedom on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, York had trouble adjusting back to the life of a slave.[1] After requesting William Clark for his freedom upon the completion of the expedition, William Clark declined multiple times which led him to become agitated with York and eventually hired him out for work in Louisville, Kentucky.[4] According to Washington Irving, William Clark told Irving he had freed York and given him six horses and a large wagon to start a drayage business driving between Nashville and Richmond.[1] There are conflicting reports on York's death but most historians believe he died from cholera on his way back to William Clark in St. Louis.

Early life[edit]

York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He and several members of his family were owned by the Clark family. The will of John Clark III (father of George Rogers and William Clark) states:[5]

I give and bequeath to my son Edmund... three negroes, to wit Peter (Vegas child), and Scipio and Darathy (Rose's children)... I give and bequeath to my son William... one negro man named York, also old York and his wife Rose, and their two children, Nancy and Juba; also three old negroes, Tame, Cupid and Harry.

The most plausible family tree based on this description and others is that York was the son of Old York, not by Rose, that Scipio (also spelled Sippo, Seppo, Sep, and Pipo, likely named the same as the Roman general Scipio Africanus) and Daphny (also spelled Dafney, Daphney, and Daphne) were Rose's children not by Old York, and that Nancy and Juba were Old York and Rose's biological children.[6] This would make Scipio, Daphney, Juba, and Nancy the half-siblings of York.

William Clark called York his "playmate".[7] York was left to William in his father's will.[5] He had a fiancée 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.[8]

Lewis and Clark Expedition[edit]

During the expedition William Clark only mentioned York three times in journal he kept.[1] York is first mentioned in Clark's journal on December 26, 1803, Clark mentions that York and corporal White House had been working with the whipsaws indicating that he was already working with the other men on the expedition.[1] Clark mentions York again in his journal on June 5, 1804, noting that York had swum to a sand bar from the Keelboat in order to collect some greens for dinner.[1] The majority of the men on the expedition could not swim. At least two men on the expedition including Captain Clark mentioned that on June 20, York almost lost his eye during a playful altercation when he had sand thrown at him.[2] York was mentioned again in Captain Clark's journal after a small party including York had descended the Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, Clark notes that "York was nearly exhausted by the heat, thirst and fatigue. Captain Clark said this is because York is too fat and unaccustomed to walk so fast".[2] On September 19 it's noted that while on a hunting party York had killed an elk,[2] there is no record of York having training with a weapon which was not allowed for slaves at that time.

Once the party reached the Arikara villages they were fascinated with York since they had never seen a black man before.[3] The natives called him "Big Medicine," which translates to something that cannot be explained.[1] York would play with the children of the villages and tell them that he was previously a wild animal that was tamed by Captain Clark and that he thought children were very good to eat. While playing these games with the children, he would show them how strong he was and roar at them.[3] The men and women of the villages adored York as well. On October 12, 1804, it is noted that an Arikara welcomed York to his lodge, where the native man's wife was waiting. The Arikara man stood guard outside for some time in order to permit no interruption of their business.[2] "Their women are very fond of caressing our men, and are much pleased with York. He had fun terrifying the children who constantly follow him,"[2] October 15, 1804. York was not pleased with all the attention he received though. During a meeting with a Hidatsa chief named Le Borge, York became very angry and pulled a knife on the chief after he had tried to rub York's skin, thinking it was paint.[1]

On November 18, 1805, York accompanied Captain Clark to the tree at Cape Disappointment State Park, Washington where Clark added to Lewis's name carved in the tree " By Land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805".[3] York had become the first black man to reach the Pacific Ocean when he walks nineteen miles from their camp with Captain Clark.[1] Sometime as well in late November, York was allowed to cast a vote on a decision pertaining to the expedition, making him the first black man known to have voted west of the Mississippi.[1] All the men of the expedition were paid according to rank $5 to $30 per month and granted 320 acres for each enlisted men, except for York.[3]

Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable.[9] 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.[citation needed]

"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, experiencing freedom while doing that. Clark named two geographic discoveries after him; York's Eight Islands and York's Dry Creek, indicating that Clark may have respected him. When a poll was taken to decide where the group should stay over one winter, York's vote was recorded. He was also able to swim, unlike some of the men who were with them on their expedition.[10]

Later years[edit]

As to York's later life and death, Washington Irving was told by William Clark in 1832 that Clark had 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 modern historians doubt the credibility of Clark's story because it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people.[11] Others hold out the possibility that, as Clark's childhood playmate and long-time companion, the two men possessed a measure of friendship and mutual respect that was atypical for the time.[12] However, manumission laws and practices of the era often required freed slaves to leave the area, and their family and friends.

Another account has led to speculation that York returned west and lived among the Indians. This speculation seems to be based on the account by Zenas Leonard who 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 [sic] 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]

However, the black man who lived among the Crow was most likely the well-known African American Mountain Man, Edward Rose (c.1780-c.1833).[citation needed] Though Leonard's account of this unnamed man came after the reported deaths of both Rose and York.

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, but when he returned east he was a slave again.[14] Relations between Clark and York deteriorated and in 1809 was removed from the position of body servant and hired out to a farm owner by the name of Young. It is unclear if he was hired out in such a way as a punishment, Young being notorious for abusing his slaves, or so that York could be closer to his wife, who lived in the region.[15] In the PBS series Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, director Ken Burns states that 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.[16]


There is no doubt that York played a vital role while reading through the journals written during the expedition. Not only did he fulfill his duties as a laborer along the expedition, the journals also suggest that the color of York's skin intrigued the Native tribes so much they seemingly gave the expedition a pass through the land as well as commencing with trade.[1] The journals also suggest that York had gained the respect of many of the men who were part of the expedition as well.[1]

Popular culture[edit]

In 1999 Kentucky actor and writer Hasan Davis evoked York through the Kentucky Humanities Council's Chautauqua Living History program. As the Bicentennial Commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition neared, Davis was invited to share York's story along the trail and across the nation as part of the national retelling of the expedition and its impact on the nation, native communities, and future generations.

In 2019 Davis' book The Journey of York: Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was released by Capstone Publishing.

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 dark-skinned Indians.

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.[17]

The play York was created by actor and African drummer David Casteal and playwright Bryan Harnetiaux, and premiered at Spokane Civic theatre on April 29, 2005, as directed by Susan Hardie and performed by David Casteal, (with performances in New York City in July 2006). In commemoration of Black History Month, the play was again presented on February 27–28, 2016 with David Casteal returning in the lead role as York in a one-man performance.[18]


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.[19] NW York Street in Portland also commemorates the explorer.[20]

In July 1989, a statue group by sculptor Bob Scriver, "Explorers at the Portage" was erected in Overlook Park in Great Falls, Montana. It depicts Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, York, and the expedition's dog, Seaman, surveying the junction of the Missouri and Sun rivers. Scriver donated a copy of the work to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, located near the city on the Crooked Falls of the Great Falls of the Missouri River.[21]

Yorks Islands are an archipelago of islands in the Missouri River near Broadwater County, Montana,[22][23] which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named "York's 8 Islands",[24] but have since become known as "Yorks Islands" or simply "York Island".

In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of honorary sergeant in the United States Army.[25]

A four-foot bust of York on a pedestal was secretly installed in Mount Tabor Park, Portland, Oregon, in 2021. On the pedestal is a plaque describing York's role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. The artist is unknown.[26]

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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Betts, Robert B. (2000). In search of York : the slave who went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 0-87081-618-7. OCLC 45015745.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Clarke, Charles G., 1899-1983. (2002). The men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition : a biographical roster of the fifty-one members and a composite diary of their activities from all known sources. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-6419-4. OCLC 48870926.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b c d e Ambrose, Stephen E. (15 February 1996). Undaunted courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West. New York. ISBN 0-684-81107-3. OCLC 33044492.
  4. ^ "York Explored the West With Lewis and Clark, But His Freedom Wouldn't Come Until Decades Later". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2020-04-21.
  5. ^ a b *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.
  6. ^ Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark James J. Holmberg, Yale University Press, 2002
  7. ^ Áhati N. N. Touré (April 2006). "Fallout over Freedom". Lewis and Clark.org. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  8. ^ "The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery". United States National Park Service. April 2006. Archived from the original on March 13, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ From Sea to Shining Sea. James Alexander Thom, Ballantine Books, 2010.
  13. ^ Zenas Leonard (1839). "Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard". Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  14. ^ "Lewis and Clark . Living History . York's Experience | PBS".
  15. ^ "York After the Lewis and Clark Expedition".
  16. ^ "Lewis and Clark, Inside the Corps, York". PBS. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  17. ^ "York: The Voice of Freedom". Pennsylvania State University. Archived from the original on March 5, 2004. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  18. ^ "York". Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  19. ^ "The Source". Lewis and Clark College. Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  20. ^ "Streets of the Alphabet District".
  21. ^ "Great Falls Offers Other Attractions for Visitors". Great Falls Tribune. July 16, 1989. p. Centennial Focus Week 23; "Area Has Treasure Trove of Scrivers". Great Falls Tribune. January 30, 1999. pp. A1, A3; Oliver, Myrna (February 2, 1999). "Bob Scriver, Sculptor of Bronzes on the Old West". Los Angeles Times. p. A16.
  22. ^ U.S. Board on Geographic Names, listing for "York's Island".
  23. ^ Crimson Bluffs Chapter, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc., Dedication Ceremony for York's Islands Fishing Access Commemoration. Archived May 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Copy of Captain William Clark's map for July 24, 1805 with "York's 8 Islands" marked in his handwriting. Archived July 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ "President Clinton: Celebrating the Legacy of Lewis and Clark and Preserving America's Natural Treasures". FirstGov. January 17, 2001. Archived from the original on 26 August 2006. Retrieved 2010-12-19.
  26. ^ Selsky, Andrew (February 24, 2021). "Bust of Black hero of Lewis & Clark trip mysteriously appears in Portland park". KOMO. Retrieved February 24, 2021.


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