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York

A version of this article by James J. Holmberg appeared in The Encyclopedia of Louisville:

York was an ex officio member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, accompanying the Corps of Discovery in its epic journey to the Pacific and back, 1803-06, as the slave of William Clark. He was the first African American to cross the present United States and the North American continent north of Mexico from coast to coast. He probably was born between 1770 and 1775, most likely in Caroline County, Virginia, where the Clark family lived during that period. It is believed that he was the son of Old York, a Clark family slave, and grew up as the companion and body servant to William Clark. He moved with the Clarks to Jefferson County, Kentucky, in 1785, living at the family plantation "Mulberry Hill." During William Clark's military service in the Kentucky militia and the regular army, and during his extensive business travels, it is likely that York accompanied him at times. In October 1803 when Lewis and Clark and the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery left the Falls of the Ohio, York was with the explorers. The luxury of having strictly a body servant on such a rigorous and dangerous undertaking could not be indulged, and York soon became a valued and equal member of the party. He was particularly valuable regarding diplomatic relations with the various Native American tribes encountered. Many of them had never seen a black man before, and he was believed to have great spiritual power. This, together with his large size, strength, and agility, greatly impressed the Indians, and the expedition's leaders used this to their advantage. He was allowed to voice his opinion and "vote" along with the other men concerning expedition decisions. Some historians have stated that York was the first slave to actually exercise this right in U.S. history. Contrary to popular belief he was not freed by Clark immediately following the expedition. It was at least ten years after the expedition before York was finally granted his freedom. In June 1808 Clark moved permanently to St. Louis which precipitated a severe falling out between the two life long companions. The cause was one of the cruel realities of slavery--York and his wife, who was owned by someone else, were separated. York wanted to remain in Louisville, but Clark insisted he come with him to St. Louis. York's behavior and attitude after this forced move away from his wife became objectionable to Clark and the relationship between the two men became poor, in fact so much so that Clark considered selling his long time manservant. In the end York was allowed to live in the Louisville area, and either worked for the Clark family or was hired out. In November 1815 York was still a slave, driving a wagon for a Louisville drayage business in which Clark was a partner. Sometime between this date and 1832 Clark manumitted York. He told Washington Irving in 1832 that he had freed York after the expedition and had set him up in a drayage business hauling freight between Richmond, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee, but that York was a poor business man, he lost the business, and while attempting to return to him in St. Louis he died of cholera. The date and place of York's death remain unknown. A happier ending for York is a legend, generally discredited by historians, that recounts York was freed and returned to the Rocky Mountains where he became a chief among the Crow Indians. The former fate is much more likely, but regardless of his fate, this enslaved African American, who called Louisville home from 1785 to at least 1816, significantly contributed to what many historians still consider the most famous exploring venture in the history of the United States.

Robert Betts. In Search of York (Boulder, Co., 1985); James J. Holmberg. "I Wish You to See & Know All." We Proceeded On 18 (November 1992): 4-12.


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