York (Sept 6, 1770 – ca. March 13, 1831) was an African American slave best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As William Clark’s slave, he had to do difficult manual labour without pay. Like many other enslaved African Americans, his ultimate fate is unclear. There is evidence that he pressed for his freedom after the expedition’s return and that Clark opposed it but possibly agreed ten years later, but some historians dispute this and say he was never freed.
York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He, his father, his mother Rose and younger sister and brother Nancy and Juba, were slaves of the Clark family. York was William Clark’s servant from boyhood, and was left to William in his father’s will. He had a wife whom he rarely saw, and likely he lost contact with her when she was sent to Mississippi in 1811. He is also known for his heroic bravery for saving Lewis from a Grizzly Bear. It is not known if he fathered any children.
Lewis and Clark Expedition
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, and was the only African American slave member of the Expedition. The journals record that the assignments given him attest to his skill in scouting, hunting and field medicine, but included manual labour in extreme weather conditions. York used a firearm to hunt game such as buffalo, 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. When the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, York voted along with the rest as to where the Expedition would build winter quarters.
Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable. After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member but York received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. Clark refused. York pleaded to be reunited with his wife, who was a slave in Louisville; he even offered to work in Louisville and send Clark all his earnings. Clark refused, pleaded financial difficulties, although he let York send a couple of buffalo robes to his wife and, a couple of years later, visit her for a few weeks.
Clark said York was “insolent and sulky” and whipped and jailed him. He threatened to sell York to New Orleans. Clark hired him out to a “severe master” in 1811, and he remained a slave at least until 1816. No reliable information has been published on York after this date. Two accounts, that historians cannot corroborate, were those of Washington Irving and Zenas Leonard. Irving interviewed Clark in 1832, and he claimed to have freed York, but that he was 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. Betts, as well as other historians doubt the accuracy of Clark’s story saying that it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people.Historian Áhati N. N. Touré suggests another possibility: that York simply refused to return to Clark, and escaped to freedom. Betts cites Zenas Leonard, who met with an African man living among the Crows in north-central Wyoming in 1834. Leonard claimed this man was York of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but historians cannot corroborate this story.
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.
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.
“Yorks Islands” are a group of islands in Broadwater County, Montana, which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named “Yorks 8 Islands,” 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.” 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. 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