Time Before Now, July 1799 – Revolutionary firebrand and founding father, John Adams, was serving as the nation’s second president. French Army officer, Captain Pierre-François Bouchard, had just unearthed the Rosetta Stone in Egypt during Napoleon’s seige on the Canal of the Pharaohs and Eli Whitney, hoping to end the need for slaves, patented the cotton gin. But Whitney’s invention had the reverse effect, increasing the number of acres devoted to cotton and the number of slaves, as well.
July 24, 1799
On this day, an enslaved “manservant” known simply as York, became the property of Captain William Clark. He would accompany Clark and the Corps of the Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and back but it may not have been to earn his freedom.
Born in 1770, the same year as the explorer in Caroline County, Virginia, York was still in his teens when he was handed over to young Clark, (left) who referred to him as his childhood “playmate.” Born to a woman called Rose and a man possibly named “Old York,” he may have had several half siblings. All were slaves owned by William’s parents, John and Ann Rogers Clark.
By the time York and Clark left for the much heralded expedition, the Clark family had moved from Virginia to Kentucky. Both men were 33 years old, joining Captain Meriwether Lewis in mid-October, 1803, near Louisville, Kentucky. Generally referred to in expedition journals as”Clark’s man York” and by Clark as “my servant,” he apparently functioned as a full member of the party.
The original John Clark home in Kentucky
It was not entirely “kum ba yah,” however. Most of the men of the Corps were Southerners and for a time, questioned allowing a black man to vote on the expedition. The journals indicate York came in for a lot of the heavy lifting, as well. When Clark shot an elk in South Dakota, his “servant york Packed it out on his back.” Particularly gifted in folk ways, he also served as the company medic, brewing curative tea for the sick, crossing an icy river for herbs to doctor Clark’s cold and tending Sgt. Charles Floyd, (left) in his final hours, the only fatality of the journey.
His expertise as a hunter remains perplexing, since slaves were not allowed to possess or use fire arms. An excellent scout, he also had a skill a majority of the party did not – he was a strong swimmer.
As the Corps’ only black man, he was a perpetual source of wonder to the Native Americans, perhaps tinged with a bit of fear. Called “Big Medicine” and “Black Raven” by the Nez Percé, he was often able to negotiate trade deals with the various tribes they encountered.
Owing to the fact that York and Sacagawea, the only Native American, were essential to the group’s survival, the mostly military operation was surprisingly egalitarian. Following Lewis and Clark’s return to civilization in 1896, however, York’s biography becomes murky. A number of sources say he continued to work for Clark in a condition of servitude for a number of years while Clark himself told author Washington Irving years later that he granted York his freedom.
The only written evidence of Clark’s manumission of any slave was, freeing a man named Ben in 1802 “in consideration of the services already rendered.” Apparently York’s lifetime of devotion didn’t rise to Clark’s high bar for gratitude.
Two years after the expedition’s return, correspondence with his brother indicated instead he had become dissatisfied with York. Asking to stay a few weeks with a wife he rarely saw, Clark wrote that he’d “permit him to “Stay a fiew weeks … [but] he is Serviceable to me at this place, and I am determined not … to gratify him, and have directed him to return,” promising to “have him Sent to New Orleands and sold, or hired out to Some Sevare Master until he thinks better of Such Conduct.”
Ominously, writing his brother again in 1809 Clark said “I have become displeased with him and Shall hire or Sell him.” And by 1811, Clark’s nephew, John O’Fallon, (above) reported to his uncle that York had been “hired out to a severe master in Louisville.”
Captain Merwether Lewis (right) earns no accolades, either. Reportedly, when asked for his opinion on freeing York, Lewis advised Clark against it.
Perhaps the least credible story, however, was a more or less contemporaneous account by mountain man, Zenus Leonard that York refused to return to slavery following the expedition and was living among the Crow in northern Wyoming. Citing as evidence Leonard wrote that a “negro man. . . informed us he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark.”
But most historians believe the black man encountered by Leonard was likely the well-known African American mountain man, Edward Rose. A widely held belief among researchers is that York died sometime before 1832 of cholera in Tennessee or Kentucky.
Film maker Ken Burns, (right) in his 1997 PBS series, “Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery” concluded that Clark’s statements to Washington Irving may have been true, freeing York after another decade of slavery. It took more than 170 years, however, before Clark’s shabby treatment of York to come to light through his letters.
While York’s resting place is unrecorded, in a small gesture of humanity, Clark did enter York’s name twice on his maps of the West. First was “York’s 8 Islands” in the Missouri River near Townsend, Montana, known simply today as York’s Islands and a tributary of the Yellowstone River, originally named York’s Dry Creek, since renamed “Custer’s Creek.”
No actual image of York exists but two statues commemorate his remarkable part in the expedition, one at Riverfront Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky (above) by noted African American sculptor, Ed Hamilton, (right) and another at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. And finally, in a national gesture of recognition, in 2001 President Bill Clinton posthumously conferred on York the rank of honorary sergeant in the U.S. Army for his “invaluable service to the Corps of Discovery.”
“York’s Islands Fishing Access Site, four miles south of Townsend, is part of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. On the east side of the Missouri River and open year-round, the site is off U.S. 287 at Milepost 82. The picturesque spot includes picnic areas, boat launch and camp sites with access for camp trailers up to 30 feet in length.
There is a small fee and visitors are asked to limit their stay to seven days. BYOW – it’s currently listed as having restrooms but no running water. For more information go to visitmt.com/listings/general/fishing-access-site/york-s-islands-fishing-access-site, call (406) 994-4042 or write Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 1400 S. 19th Avenue, Bozeman, MT 59718.
© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.