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York(c. 1772–?) - Explorer, slave, Chronology, Joins in Expedition

clark william lewis york’s

York, the slave and body servant of William Clark, was an important part of the Lewis and Clark expedition which took place from 1804 to 1806. Although York was a slave, his opinion and his vote were considered when the explorers made decisions. Many historians have characterized York as a buffoon and embraced myth and stereotypes to define York’s place in the expedition, but it has since been recognized that York’s presence had a direct impact on making the expedition a success. York often affected the outcome regarding negotiations with the Native Americans on the expedition because he was thought to be magical and even god-like. Recognizing the influence and contributions of York adds another dimension to the Lewis and Clark expedition and it acknowledges one who at the time received some recognition but who did not share in the reward of this exploration.

York was born a slave in about 1772 on the Clark family plantation. Most of what is known about York’s early years is taken from the Clark family records. John Clark, the father of William Clark, lived with his wife Ann, in Caroline County, Virginia, on their plantation. William Clark was born August 1, 1770, and historians agree that York was also born around this time. One family member, William Clark Keenerly, wrote in his memoir Persimmon Hill about William Clark when he was a child. He noted that Clark was accompanied by “his little Negro boy York” as he rode about the countryside. When John Clark, William’s father, died in 1799, listed among his slaves was “old York” and his wife Rose along with two children, Nancy and Jube. York was not listed but his parents and siblings were still on the Clark plantation. By this time York was an adult and in service to Clark.

Chronology

1772?

Born a slave in Caroline County, Virginia

1784

Becomes William Clark’s slave/body servant

1804

Accompanies Lewis and Clark on expedition

1805

Actions support the opportunity for trade with the Shoshones

1806

Expedition returns

1811

Granted freedom ?? Death unknown

Joins in Expedition

York may have become Clark’s body servant when the Clark family moved to Kentucky in 1784. Young slaves were forced to leave their childhood behind between the ages of ten and twelve. They were sent to the field or did domestic work. Clark would have been fourteen, and York was a few years younger, about twelve. York remained Clark’s body servant from childhood into adulthood. When Clark and his friend Meriwether Lewis were choosing men to go on an expedition as outlined by President Thomas Jefferson, numerous men were considered but only a select few were accepted. President Thomas Jefferson had given specific instructions. The men who were strong, steady, and reliable in a crisis were chosen, and York was among them. The expedition was believed to support the U.S. claim to the vast land of the Louisiana Purchase.

York was mentioned several times in Clark’s diary which chronicled their travels. Clark notes that York, unlike many of the explorers, could swim. He was able to swim to various areas and collect greens for their dinner. York also took care of Sergeant Floyd, a member of the expedition, who became seriously ill and died. In 1804 when the expedition reached South Dakota and contact was made with the Native American tribe, the Arikaras, the natives were astonished to see a black man. York was said to be a large man with curly hair. The Native Americans would crowd around him touching his skin and hair. They found it difficult to believe that his color did not come off. The women of the tribes were said to offer themselves to York. Native women were also available to the other explorers, but this was not mentioned in detail. The Mandans in North Dakota reacted to York with similar amazement because of his dark skin. They referred to York as the “great medicine.” In 1805 during the expedition’s stay in North Dakota for the winter, Clark used York to keep the natives entertained. Lewis also found York useful. He had him dance for the Shoshones in Montana to keep them occupied until Clark arrived. The explorers had merchandise to bargain with the Shoshones for horses, but were unsure if the trade would happen. With the presence of York the Indians were won over and the horses were acquired. York enjoyed many freedoms while on the expedition; he was one of the hunters for the group and carried a firearm. York’s contributions were such that he was given a vote when a decision was being made about where to build a fort for the winter on the Oregon coast.

When the expedition returned to St. Louis, York was admired and appreciated by all, but he did not receive any rewards. The other explorers received double pay and land for their services. York asked for his freedom after the expedition ended in 1806, but his request was not granted. In the years after the expedition ended, York’s status with Clark declined. He went from a body servant to one of the lowest of jobs for a slave, a hired slave. While hired out to various masters and sent from one location to another, York met and married a slave woman. Shortly after that her master took her to Mississippi, and York knew he would never see her again. York is said to have been freed in 1811 by Clark, but his life after that is unclear. Washington Irving, who visited William Clark, recorded Clark’s statements that York was so lazy and unsuccessful as a freeman and as a businessman that he had decided to return to Clark. Along the way, York was stricken with cholera and died in Tennessee. Another account of York was reported by a trapper in the Rocky Mountains who met an old black man living among the Crow Indians. The old black man said he had traveled the Pacific with Lewis and Clark. Because York’s status as a slave provided no motivation to record further events in his life, his later years and his death remain unknown.

As a slave York had a difficult life, but while on expedition with Lewis and Clark he came to know on many levels what it was like to be treated in some ways as an equal. His contributions to the expedition in making the journey successful were important and assure that his name is counted among those who explored the American frontier.

You Can't Go Home Again [next] [back] Yerby, Frank(1916–1991) - Novelist, poet, Literary Career, The Costume Novel, Chronology

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