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YORK, The first black explorer

The lone black man on the trip was the slave of William Clark. The slave's name was York. York contributed both manpower and entertainment for the crew. His large size was amazing to the Indians, as was his dark skin. There is an anecdotal report that the Indians in the Mandan village, where the expedition wintered in 1804, tried to rub his color off. They were convinced he had painted himself black. Despite his large size he was an agile dancer, the crew as well as the Indians loved to watch York dance. After the Expedition returned to St. Louis, York was not granted his wish to be set free for his efforts in making the mission a success. When his first desire was denied he asked to be sold to the owner of his wife. This wish was not granted either.   [YORK link]

http://www.lewis-clark.org/yo_index.htm

 This is the roll call from the expedition. York (Clark's slave)
YORK and Sacajewa were the only ones that didn't receive pay.

Lewis and Clark Expedition was High Point for Clark’s Slave
By Evelyn Boswell

York's Experience: Living History, PBS
Read or Listen to the comments on Real Audio by:
Stephen Ambrose, Gerard Baker, & Jim Ronda



http://www.virginiacity.com/sch08.htm 

York had helped pole Clark's keelboat, paddled his canoe, hunted for his meat, made his fire, had shown he was prepared to sacrifice his life to save Clark's, crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky and denied not only his freedom but his wife and, we may suppose, children.

     One of Montana's most famous black visitors was York, Clark's slave on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ambrose writes about York after the Expedition was over:

In August, 1808, when one of Clark's slaves ran away, Lewis gave York $4 for his expenses as he searched for the man. That indicates a high level of trust in York, but nevertheless Clark was upset with York.

York was demanding his freedom as his reward for his services on the expedition. His wife belonged to someone else and lived in Louisville, Kentucky. When Clark refused to free him, York asked to be allowed to go to Louisville. Clark agreed to send him there, but only for a visit. In a November 9, 1808, letter to his brother Jonathan, Clark explained that he would "send York and premit him to Stay a fiew weeks with his wife, he wishes to Stay there altogether and hire himself [a fairly common practice; York was proposing to hire himself out and send the money his labor earned to Clark] which I have refused. he prefers being Sold to return[ing] here, [but] he is Serviceable to me at this place, and I am determined not to Sell him, to gratify him, and have derected him to return . . . to this place, this fall. if any attempt is made by York to run off, or refuse to proform his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleans and sold, or hired out to Some Sevare Master untill he thinks better of Such Conduct. I do not wish him to know my determination if he conducts himself well."

York continued to argue that he should be set free. Clark lamented to his brother, "I did wish to do well by him [York], but as he has got Such a notion about freedom and his emence Services [on the expedition], that I do not expect he will be of much Service to me again."

Clark fretted over the situation. He discussed it with Lewis. In a late-1808 letter to his brother, Clark wrote, "I do not cear for Yorks being in this Country. I have got a little displeased with him and intended to have punished him but Govr. Lewis has insisted on my only hireing him out in Kentucky which perhaps will be best." Clark hoped that York would learn a lesson from "a Severe Master" and thus "give over that wife of his" to return to St. Louis.

York was not the only slave causing Clark problems. He wrote Jonathan that he was often "much vexed & perplexed with my few negrows," so much so that he had been forced to chastise them and was considering selling all but four, not only to relieve the frustration of dealing with them but to obtain badly needed money. Still, he was troubled by his temptation to sell his slaves. "I wish I was near enough to Council with you a little on this Subject will you write a fiew lines about this inclination of mine to turn negrows into goods cash."

In May 1809, York returned to St. Louis. "York brought my horse," Clark. wrote, "he is here but of very little Service to me, insolent and sukly, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended."

No commentary is necessary. Much of the evil of slavery is encapsuled in this little story-not least [President] Jefferson's realism about the effect of slavery on the morals and manners of the slaveholder. York had helped pole Clark's keelboat, paddled his canoe, hunted for his meat, made his fire, had shown he was prepared to sacrifice his life to save Clark's, crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky and denied not only his freedom but his wife and, we may suppose, children.

That Lewis's attitude was somewhat softer is obvious, but it is highly unlikely that he ever told Clark to grant York his freedom. Lewis could no more escape the lord-and-master attitude toward black slaves than Clark could-or, come to that, than Jefferson could (Jefferson also sold slaves and separated families.) No wonder Jefferson could write, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just".

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updated:

Thursday, May 16, 2002

copyright 1999/2000/2001/2002 Rebecca York

 

 

 

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