When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark planned to embark on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean in the 1800s, they spent a lot of time talking about the men who would join them. They chose translators, soldiers, and French oarsmen who were more familiar with the terrain than they were, according to history. They then chose York, an enslaved man who became the group’s sole Black member.
Clark was the owner of York. He had no say in whether or not he would join the mission. Despite being forced to join, he made significant contributions to the trip.
He went food hunting, handled horses and boats, assisted in the discovery of new flora and animals, promoted contact between his group and Native American tribes, and even risked his life to save Clark from a flash flood.
Members of the expedition who journeyed with Clark and Lewis gained praises, land, and fame when they returned after two years and 8,000 miles. Despite his role in the explorers’ triumph, York was completely overlooked. York had witnessed what freedom meant after crossing the river and mountains and acting in “free ways” throughout the voyage. Upon their return to Louisville, Kentucky in 1806, he desired his freedom or, if feasible, the opportunity to live with his wife. Clark, on the other hand, turned down his plea.
York had known Clark, a White son of a prosperous southern farmer since they were children. York and Clark were both born around the same period. Clark’s father owned York’s father, who was known as “Old York,” and his mother. York, Clark’s “6-foot, 200-pound body servant,” possessed many of the abilities essential for the 1804 mission. And he didn’t let anyone down during the Corps of Discovery journey, which lasted two years. York not only knew how to navigate routes, shoot guns, and kill wildlife, but he also drew the attention of Native Americans who had never seen a Black person before. Historians claim that some people thought he was powerful and would be good in bed.
“…The Indian women, in particular, adored York, and he exploited this to the point where, on numerous occasions, York would go missing that night and be found in the lodge with one of the Indians. PBS claimed that the Indian husband would sometimes stand guard while the business was conducted.
York was frequently forced by Clark to perform as a “frightening monster” or dance for the Native Americans. When big decisions were made, such as which route explorers should travel, York was also given a say. York searched for Clark during a violent storm after he went missing during the 28-month expedition.
According to Clark’s later memoirs, he also swam to a “Sand bar” to harvest greens for meals when he was sick.
Despite this, when York asked to stay in Louisville to be closer to his wife after they returned, Clark refused, stating in one of his letters that he whipped him. Three years later, Clark hired York for a year to a farm owner in Louisville, Kentucky, who was notorious for severely torturing his enslaved people.
Historians aren’t sure what happened to York following that. Clark, who had previously addressed him in his books, did not do so for another 20 years. In 1832, Clark publicly stated that he had freed many of his slaves, including York, who he claimed had begun a business as a “wagonner.” Clark said that York’s life had been wrecked by his independence.
“He couldn’t get up early enough in the morning [sic] — his horses were neglected – two died, and the rest became destitute. He sold them, was duped, and was forced into service, where he did not farewell. I’ve never had a happy day since I acquired this freedom, stated York. He was determined to meet his former master again and started out for St. Louis, but contracted cholera in Tennessee and died.”
Others believe York did not die of cholera and instead spent his final years with a tribe of Native Americans, where he rose to the rank of chief and warrior.