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York, Captain William Clark’s black “manservant,” accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back to the East (1803-1806). William Clark’s life-long slave companion, York and William were roughly the same age. He had been bequeathed to William by his father, John Clark, in a will dated July 24, 1799. In 1803, the two lived together in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, opposite Louisville. On October 29, he and Clark, who would become co-commander of the expedition, joined Lewis and “Nine young men from Kentucky” when they stepped aboard the Corps’ keelboat and set off on a journey into history.

York’s alleged first name, “Ben,” cannot be found in the Lewis and Clark journals, nor any other primary source contemporary with his life. Its first known appearance was in the magazine National Geographic, November 1965. The reference for its origin is cited in Charles G. Clarke’s The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Arthur H Clark Co., Glendale, CA, 1970, p. 38). There, it is explained that National Geographic based the name on information given by a Mr. Jack E. Hodge of Fort Worth, Texas. No records were found to support Mr. Hodge’s opinion. Alternatively, he was alleged to have “made it on his own authority.”

York is virtually unknown to almost all blacks and whites alike. Yet as the journals of the expedition testify, this first black man to cross the continent north of Mexico played a meaningful role in our young nation’s first exploration of the American West. He faithfully performed his share of the duties required of every member in order for the expedition to reach the Pacific and return. His unique features and great strength were viewed with astonishment and awe by Native Americans encountered across the continent. His presence was considered a remarkable phenomenon that enhanced the prestige of the white strangers, who never had been seen previously by the isolated Indian populations.

Journal references of York are sparse the first winter at Camp Dubois (Illinois), the explorers' staging area for the “Corps of Discovery.” Over the five month period, December 12, 1803, to May 14, 1804, York is mentioned only three times. On December 26, Clark observed, “Corps. White house & York Commce sawing with the Whip Saws,” indicating York was involved with work assignments with the men, and not serving Clark full time as a servant.

York is not mentioned again until April 7, 1804, when he accompanied the captains to St. Louis. Clark noted, “Set out at 7oclock in a Canoo with Cap Lewis my servant & one man at 1/2 past 10 arrived at St. Louis.” Lastly, in a roster of the party prepared before departure from Camp Dubois, May 14, Clark lists “2 of us & york,” which has been interpreted to mean that Lewis, Clark and York were a single unit in terms of boat travel and living arrangements.

Little vignettes of York’s attributes began to appear as the expedition was ascending the Missouri River. On June 5, he swam to a “Sand bar to geather Greens for our Dinner,” revealing that he was involved in preparing the captains’ meals, and that he could swim, which several of the men could not do.

Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died August 20 of an apparent ruptured appendix, was first reported gravely ill on August 19. Clark wrote, “[E]very man attentive to him, york prlly [principally].” This brief entry is not expanded upon, but it suggests that York assisted in easing the young soldier’s last hours. Floyd was the only expedition member to die during the mission.

On September 9, Clark “Derected My Servent York with me to kill a Buffalow.” This points to the inseparable lifetime relationship between Clark and York, who had grown up together in the woodlands of Kentucky. Slaves had been prohibited by statute to handle firearms except if they lived on the frontier and had been issued a license by a justice of the peace, which was applied for by their masters. Whatever the case, York appears regularly in the journals as a hunter.

August 25, the captains, together with nine men, including York, hiked nearly 20 miles to examine “Spirit Mound,” a place of “little people” feared by superstitious Indians. The outing, made on a hot, muggy day, was commented upon by Clark in an entry that is totally at odds with York’s traditional image of having been a giant of superb physique and stamina. Clark wrote, “[W]e returned to the boat at Sunset, my servent nearly exosted with heat thurst and fatigue, he being fat and unaccustomed to walk as fast as I went was the cause.”

The original journals of the expedition do not mention York even once in terms of sexual activities. It was not until 1814, when a narrative edition of the journals was published, that certain of Clark’s discussions of the subject he had with the editor were embellished. This has resulted in a lasting impression of York’s assumed sexual prowess, perpetuated by writers of fiction and nonfiction alike, who have greatly magnified the importance of the embellished 1814 version.

An added dimension to York’s personality was his play-acting, which often took the form of dramatic practical jokes. On October 10, while among the Arikaras, Clark recorded a grotesque scene, describing York’s antics before the Arikaras. The Arikaras “were much astonished at my Black Servent, who made him self more turrible in thier view than I wished him to Doe, telling them that before I caught him he was wild & lived upon people, young children was verry good eating.” That York’s performance was intended as a joke is borne out by Clark’s comment, “he carried on the joke,” implying he went too far.

That York had sincere concern for the safety of the expedition members, particularly Clark, is illustrated in an episode involving Clark, Sacgawea, her son, and her husband, Toussaint. The four were nearly washed into the Missouri when they were caught in a flash flood. Believing the four had become lost, York disregarded his own safety during the height of the storm and searched for them. Clark wrote that they reached the rim of the canyon “safe where I found my servent in serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar.”

On July 7, York became ill. Clark wrote, “[M]y man York sick, I give him a dosh of Tarter” (to induce vomiting) Lewis later commented, “[H]e was much better in the evening.” There are numerous instances of the members being sick, including Clark, Sacagawea and also her infant. York appears to have enjoyed good health during most of the expedition’s 28 months.

In Clark’s tabulations of “Creeks and Rivers,” listed independently of the narrative journals, is the entry, “Yorks 8 Islands,” and under remarks is “W.C. on land York tired.” The captains followed the practice of naming geographic features after prominent persons who somehow had been connected with the expediton, including President Jefferson and his attributes, viz Philanthropy, Philosphy, and Wisdom Rivers; his cabinet; and as far as can be determined, every Corps member, including Seaman, Lewis’s Newfoundland dog.

In August, Lewis and a three man party scouted ahead of Clark and the others, who were following in the canoes. Lewis had found the Shoshones, from whom the Corps desperately needed to obtain horses and a guide for the high mountain country that lay ahead. Some of the Indians were skeptical of the strange white men’s motives, fearful they “were in league with the Pakees,” their word for enemy. Lewis kept stalling them, waiting for Clark and the others to arrive. Lewis related in his journal, “[S]ome of the party [with him] told the Indians that we had a man with us who was black and had short curling hair, this had excited their curiossity very much, and they seemed quite as anxious to see this monster as they were the merchandize which we had to barter for their horses.”

When Clark arrived, Lewis wrote, “[T]o the Indians, every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them. the black man york and the sagacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration.” Through the circumstance that Sacagawea was one of their own -- she was the sister of the chief -- and the captains’ fair treatment in the trading, the party obtained sufficent horses to pack their equipment, and a few for riding. When they reached the Flathead Indians, the expedition traded with them and obtained horses for all of the members. York was among those walking until his “feet became so sore that he had to ride on horseback.”

York is not mentioned during the 11-day period the explorers spent struggling to survive while passing through the Bitterroot Mountains along the ancient Lolo trail. They encountered fallen timber, bone-chilling cold, and slippery, hazardous travel during an early season snowstorm. Game was virtually nonexistent in the high mountain country. The explorers resorted to eating three colts they had purchased for that contingency. These, together with a supply of “portable soup” -- a common emergency ration during Colonial times -- were not very tasty, but they kept them going. Reaching the villages of the Nez Perce Indians, they were treated to a feast of salmon, roots, and berries. To their dismay, the new diet made them extremely ill.

York is not mentioned again until the party reached the tidal waters of the Columbia River. Here he is found “shooting two geese and brant” near a temporary base camp they established on the north (Washington State) shore of the river. Then, joining Clark and several others, he walked 19 miles to see the “main ocean.” Standing on beach, he became the first black man to have crossed the continent north of Mexico.

Finding little game and exposed to the fierce winter storms blowing in from the ocean on the north shore, the party elected to cross the river, where local Indians advised that deer and elk were plentiful. An actual vote of the members was recorded; it included the vote of a woman, Sacagawea, and a black man, York.

Reaching the south (Oregon) shore, the men commenced building their 1805-1806 winter quarters, which they named Fort Clatsop for their neighbors, the Clatsop Indians. Clark wrote that York helped construct the fort, “[M]y boy york verry unwell from violent colds & strains carrying in meet and lifting logs on the huts to build them.” Clark reported York sick three time in December, as were several of the other men.

The journals are silent on how York spent the winter at the fort, during which Clark mentioned the explorers, when not occupied, “were snug in their rooms.” York no doubt joined the hunters in providing food for the table, and as did all the others, probably spent many hours making moccasins and buckskin clothing for the return journey. When the time for departure was nearing, the captains drafted a notice that explained they were Americans sent out by the government to explore the interior of the continent. The names of all the members were listed, including “York, a black man of Captain Clark’s.” One was posted on the fort and copies were given to local Indians, one of which was passed to a ship’s captain, who carried it around the world.

York is not mentioned again until the party returned to the villages of the Nez Perce Indians along today’s Clearwater River, Idaho. Here, the captains, to prevent duplicating the terrible westbound experience in the Bitteroots, had York cross the river with others, entrusting them with trade goods to barter for staple food items. Lewis was pleased with their eventual purchases: “[I]n the evening they returned with about 3 bushels of roots and some bread having made a succesful voyage, not much less pleasing to us than the return of a good cargo to an East India Merchant.”

As a member of Clark’s return detachment exploring the Yellowstone River, York is mentioned on five different occasions. In addition, Clark named a small tributary stream “York’s Dry River,” making it the second geographic feature named for his manservant. The last mention of York in any of the diarists’ journals is Clark’s August 3 entry. Upon reaching the confluence of the Yellowstone with the Missouri, Clark reported that he had floated down the river 636 miles “in 2 Small Canoes lashed together in which I had the following Person. John Shields, George Gibson, William Bratten, W. Labeech, Tous’ Shabono his wife & child & my man York.”

Arriving at St. Louis about noon, September 23, 1806, Clark noted, “[W]e Suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a Salute to the Town. we were met by all the village and received a harty welcom from it’s inhabitant &c.” York publically shared in the warm welcome. By one account, “Even the negro York, who was the body servant of Clark, despite his ebony complexion, was looked upon with decided partiality, and received his share of adulation.”

But when York returned to daily life, he again became a slave. He asked Clark for his freedom, or to be hired out near Louisville to be closer to his wife, who had a different owner. At first, Clark refused, but in 1809, he sent York to Kentucky.

Eventually, at least 10 years after the expedition, Clark granted York his freedom. York went into the freighting business in Kentucky and Tennessee, and purportedly died of cholera sometime before 1832.


  GM