York’s Journey: A Tale of Valor and Bondage

The story of the Corps of Discovery (more popularly known as “the Lewis and Clark Expedition”) continues to captivate Americans. Elements, events, and the personalities, of the famed exploration still resonates across time. And it is quintessentially American that participants came from many diverse backgrounds and locales, though several not of their own choice or volition. The famed Shoshone woman, Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste, accompanied her husband and his father, Toussaint Charbonneau, hired by the captains at the Mandan villages in North Dakota midway through the journey. She came along basically because her husband did.

Then there was Captain Clark’s “black man,” or “servant”—as he was sometimes referred. York was along because he was Clark’s slave. Clark had inherited him from his father (who owned York’s father) in Virginia back when they were both young. We know that Clark was born in 1770, York probably around the same time. Both of them would have been in their early 30s when they made the trek westward.

The depiction of York

York, undoubtedly, as was the case with nearly all slaves, was illiterate, so he left no observations or writings in his own hand. All we know about him comes through the
observations and commentary of Lewis, Clark, and the several men who also kept briefer journals of the journey and through a handful of post-expedition documents. We don’t know, thus, what he looked like, though we do know that early in the expedition he had difficulty keeping up with Clark on a long march because, as Clark explained, York “was fat.” Several days, later, however, he was strong enough to carry a butchered deer carcass on his back for miles. We know, too, that the Mandan Indians, with whom the party wintered over in 1804-05, had never seen a black-skinned individual before and were in awe of York, believing he had special powers. The famed western artist, Charles M. Russell, recreated a scene in a 1908 painting (entitled simply “York”) in which Native people are attempting to rub the black “paint” off of York’s skin. Russell’s physical portrayal of York, as well as the various clothing he’s wearing, is completely fanciful and wholly speculative. The reality is we just don’t know, nor will we ever, what he looked like or how he dressed.

By the time the Corps of Discovery reached Montana York was carrying a rifle, hunting periodically, and standing guard duty as was the expectation of the enlisted members of the group. As Clark’s personal servant he slept in the same tent with the captains (as did the Charbonneau family). One incident of note occurred on the night of May 28 while the party camped on the north bank of the Missouri across from present-day Dog Creek at present-day Judith Landing. During the night a bison bull swam across the river, Lumbered up the bank, stumbling through the white pirogue (one of the two larger, plank bottom craft the Corps used) and then careened through camp coming then perilously close to trampling several of the sleeping men near their camp fires. Fortunately, Lewis’s dog, Seaman, barked the bull out of camp and, as Lewis somewhat understatedly put it, “saved us.” He noted that the only damage was to the pivot, swivel, and stock of the blunderbuss, a type of 19th century shot gun affixed to the pirogue’s deck, and bent a rifle, “which belonged to Capt. Clark’s black man, who had negligently left her in the pirogue.”

York after the Journey

After journeying to the Pacific where they wintered over, the expedition returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1806. The enlisted men and the two officers received double back pay and a land bounty (Lewis and Clark, 1600 acres each, the enlisted men, 320 acres). York received nothing. To make matters worse, President Jefferson rewarded Clark with a posting in St. Louis as the superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana territory. York wished to return to Louisville (where he and Clark had lived at the outset of the expedition) to be reunited with his wife, also a slave owned by a neighboring land owner. Clark refused and after a brief sojourn to Louisville he forced York to return with him to St. Louis. There, as was the custom, Clark essentially rented York’s services to various individuals for a fee, paid, of course, to Clark. York, growing ever-more adamant that he should, by all rights, be granted his freedom, increasingly infuriated Clark. In one telling letter to his younger brother Jonathan, Clark complained that York had gotten “sulky.” Later, he admitted that he had to give York (and several other of Clark’s slaves) a “trouncing,” code for whipping.

Several years later Clark leased York to a slaveowner in Louisville and then eventually engaged him in a freighting enterprise in which Clark had invested operating in the area. York’s wife, however, had long since been sold by her master into the deep South. Sometime in the 1820s Clark relented and did grant York his freedom and supplied him with a team of horses and a wagon which York ran between Nashville and Richmond, Virginia. In the early 1830s Clark related to a visitor that York had died of cholera in Tennessee, though the documentary evidence of this is nonexistent otherwise. Like many African Americans—slave and free—of the time, their lives and deaths are mostly invisible in the written historical record.

York’s life on some levels was typical of that of enslaved African Americans of the time. He was a piece of property ultimately, completely at the whim of the slaveowner. On the other hand, his experience is unique. For over three years he trekked with Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery to the western sea and back. He carried a rifle, something very, very few slaves could ever claim. For a brief moment—at the Mandan villages—he had status and prestige that he could never be afforded in the United States, and he was a source of wonder and occasionally the center of attention for the Indian peoples the Corps encountered. On the stormy Pacific coast in November of 1805 he, along with all the other members of the expedition including Sacagewea, cast a vote on which side of the Columbia river the party would winter, certainly a first in American history. He traded with and obtained some Native American gifts and trophies along the way (as did most of the members of the party). He was a full-fledged member of one of the most important governmental explorations in early American history. Yet, by the end, he was ensnared in the immoral, vile system of American slavery that casts such a pall on our history as a country. Yet, any attempt at understanding, at least in passing, the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, must also take into account the story of the one African American member of the adventure, York. His life gives an insight into a slice of America that we can’t and shouldn’t ignore and complicates our notion of who we are, collectively, as a nation.

Written By our very own Keith Edgerton