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York (ca. 1772-before 1832)

Michael Haynes Historic Art

Born the slave of the famous Clark family, York became famous in his own right. Moving to Kentucky from Virginia with the Clarks in 1785, York experienced frontier living, extensive travel, and life as the personal servant of William Clark. In 1803 he left the Falls of the Ohio as an unofficial member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While on the Expedition, York served as William Clark's and Meriwether Lewis's servant, hunted, and performed other duties. York was particularly helpful with American Indians who had never before seen a black man. Because he was unique to their experience they believed he had great spiritual power and called him "Big Medicine." The Indians were also amazed by his size, strength, and agility. For someone who had been a slave and treated as an inferior his whole life, this admiration and being seen as superior to his white companions was a revelation. After the return of the Expedition York stated his belief that he had earned his freedom, but he remained a slave for at least nine years before Clark freed him. For most of that time he lived in Louisville and worked as a wagon driver. In 1832 Clark reported that York had failed in business and died in Tennessee at an unspecified time. A happier, but unlikely, ending has York returning to the Rocky Mountains and living a happy life as a chief among the Crow Indians. York was the first African American to cross the United States from coast to coast. He is a famous explorer - famous African American - and famous American.

More on York:

To learn more: There are a growing number of sources available to learn about York: books, articles, film, radio programs, poetry, theater, and other venues. The single best source is the 2000 revised edition of Robert Betts's biography of York entitled In Search of York that includes an epilogue updating York's post expedition life by James Holmberg. York is also discussed in Holmberg's Into the Wilderness: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, a recent title in the Kentucky Humanities Council's New Books for New Readers series.

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