Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Index Inside the Corps The Native Americans The Archive Living History Into the Unknown Forum with Ken Burns Classroom Resources Related Products Interactive Trail Map Search Lewis and Clark navigation Introduction Jefferson and the West Lewis as Leader William Clark Sacagawea York's Experience Dealing with Natives Animals Discovered Less Known Stories Historical Significance Lewis and Clark navigation
 

Who was York?

Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose

Listen to the RealAudio
York was Clark’s childhood companion. He was a slave. We know he was big. We know he was very athletic. He was a great dancer. He was devoted to William Clark. He was a great help to the expedition because he was such a curiosity. Indians who had seen white men had never seen a black man before and there’s the famous – is it Catlin or Charley Russell – and there’s the famous Charley Russell painting in the Mandan lodges of the Mandan chief trying to rub the black off of York’s skin. York had a great time on the expedition. He had, had his own rifle. He got to vote. He was a full member of the expedition. He had a, the Indians loved him, and the Indian women especially loved York and he took full advantage of that so that on many occasions York would be missing that night and he would be in the lodge with one of the Indians. Sometimes with the Indian husband standing guard while the business was completed.
 


Listen to the RealAudio
What kinds of contributions did York make to the expedition?
York made invaluable contributions to the expedition on many occasions. Risking his life to save Clark in a flash flood on the Missouri River near Great Falls in present-day Montana. Going out and hunting and bringing in the game. Putting up the captain’s tents, managing the sails, plying his oar, doing all the things that everyone else did. He made his contribution. And he was a part of the team. And I would emphasize this, that, that, from the, the infant boy who danced around the fire and gladdened the hearts of the men and was enormously popular with all the men, through Sacagawea, through York, through the lowliest privates, through the sergeants, up to the captains themselves, this was a family that had come together and formed a team for the exploration of the continent of North America. And they couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t become a family. And forged themselves into a team.

What was the Indians’ response to York?

Gerard Baker
Gerard Baker

Listen to the RealAudio
One of the stories obviously, comes from the journals, that they took, different tribes would take dirt, and I remember my father telling me about this story, taking dirt and try to go up to him and rub that black off. And when they found out they couldn’t rub it off, that he was a man, of course he was very, he was very muscular and he was a big man, apparently, and so they had a lot of respect for that, and he was, he was followed around all the time by the, by the children and, and by the women, because he was powerful, you know, and people respect that. And he was different. He was different. The Indian way teaches us that just because you’re different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You be, you could be, you could be handicapped some way, mentally or physically, or you could have a, just like York came as, as a first black man they ever seen, and that was different. So he was very worship, he wasn’t ostracized by any means at all. In fact, he was just the opposite.
 

How did York feel at the end of the expedition?

Jim Ronda
Jim Ronda

Listen to the RealAudio
Think about this as an African-American man reentering the world of races and enslavery. Having seen life on the other side of the mountains, in a real sense, as a man who’s crossed the river Jordan. Who’s seen life as a free man, who’s acted in free ways. He has crossed the river Jordan. And now, back to St. Louis. Back to a world that represents, at least for a moment in his life, slavery and bondage and doing the will and the bidding of others. William Clark was a slave holder. York was not his servant, he was his slave. And we should understand that. How Clark will eventually arrange for York to be free and this is a man who will be at least in quotes, “free”. But think about being an African-American free man in a world surrounded by race and slavery. And by racial attitudes that say freedom may only be what is written on a piece of paper. At heart, you are always the other. You are always on the edges of respectability. On the edges of freedom. I want to say it again, York crossed the river, he crossed the mountains, he saw what freedom meant. And then re-entered a world of slavery where slavery was everywhere.
 

  GM