[Marxism] An enslaved man was crucial to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s success. Clark refused to free him afterward.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 13 06:24:53 MST 2020

Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2020
An enslaved man was crucial to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s success. 
Clark refused to free him afterward.
By Hannah Natanson

York had done his job superbly.

Whether the enslaved, 30-something black man wanted to participate in 
Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean is impossible to know 
— almost certainly, no one ever asked him. Compelled to join by the man 
who owned him, William Clark, York proved crucial to the explorers’ 
success. He hunted for badly needed food, smoothed relations with Native 
American tribes, cared for the ill and helped discover new plants and 

So, after the voyage’s celebrated conclusion in September 1806 — as his 
fellow adventurers reveled in newfound fame, land grants and financial 
awards — York approached Clark, whom he had served since boyhood. Aware 
he would never receive land or payment, he suggested another form of 

“York was demanding his freedom as his reward for his services on the 
expedition,” Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether 
Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West.” “Clark 
refused to free him.”

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Frustrated, York asked if he could at least move to Louisville to join 
his enslaved wife, who belonged to another man. He offered to hire 
himself out and send the money he earned to Clark. It was a far cry from 
freedom — but at least York would live with his love.

Again, Clark refused.

“[I will] permit him to Stay a fiew weeks with his wife ... [but] he is 
Serviceable to me at this place, and I am determined not ... to gratify 
him, and have directed him to return,” Clark (whose spelling was 
abysmal) wrote in an 1808 letter to his brother. “If any attempt is made 
by York to run off, or refuse to proform his duty as a Slave, I wish him 
Sent to New Orleands and sold, or hired out to Some Sevare Master until 
he thinks better of Such Conduct.”

York did not “run off,” Clark’s will prevailed and the unhappy man 
returned to his master’s home in St. Louis, Mo., in May 1809. Doubtless 
pining for his wife, York was “of very little Service to me, insolent 
and sukly,” Clark wrote to his brother. But Clark had a solution: “I 
gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended.”

America remained ignorant of Clark’s heinous treatment of York for 
almost two centuries — until the discovery of Clark’s letters to his 
brother in 1988.

“For years, historians maintained that [York] did receive his freedom 
from Clark at the conclusion of the expedition in compensation for his 
services on the journey,” Portland State University history professor 
Darrell Millner wrote in an article titled “York of the Corps of 
Discovery.” “As late as 1989, Ronald K. Fisher, in West to the Pacific, 
maintained that Clark gave freedom to his ‘friend York’ ... the 
reiteration of their ‘friendship’ is nearly inexplicable this late in 
the twentieth century.”

Millner’s article, published in 2003, was timed to coincide roughly with 
the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, which formally 
launched in May 1804.

“Because race has played such a complex and powerful part in American 
history,” Millner wrote, “York’s story can take us beyond the 
particulars of the expedition to an exploration of the racial realities 
and dynamics of American life ... [and of] the nation’s collective 
obsession with race.”

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A ‘long acquaintance’

York was born into slavery.

His parents, known only as “Old York” and “Rose,” had long served 
William Clark’s father, John Clark, on his plantation in Caroline 
County, Va. Not much is known about them apart from their names, and 
York’s boyhood is also mostly blank.

Documents show only that William Clark inherited York — along with 
roughly a dozen other enslaved people — after his father died in 1799. 
Probably about 14 at the time, York began a new life as William Clark’s 
personal servant.

“York [grew up] with William, serving as his ‘companion’ and later 
‘manservant,’” Millner wrote. “William had other slaves ... but none 
were as closely associated with their master as York was.”

It’s likely that York slept within earshot of William Clark, according 
to the National Park Service. He probably ate food in the family 
kitchen, dressed in William Clark’s hand-me-downs and learned to imitate 
the habits and manners of the upper-middle-class Clarks — though law 
prohibited him from learning how to read or write.

By the early 1800s — when Clark was invited to join the expedition to 
the Pacific — York had grown into a handsome, athletic and powerful man. 
He was “reportedly dark in color and large in size, with an uncommon 
agility,” according to Millner.

Somewhere along the way, he’d married an enslaved woman, whose name is 
lost to history.

‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for 
loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

Lewis and Clark were picky about the men they selected to accompany them 
on their perilous adventure across the unknown West. In assembling their 
roughly 25-strong team, they wanted only “robust [and] helthy hardy 
young men,” as Clark wrote in May 1804.

York was a shoo-in.

“From his long acquaintance with York and with a full understanding of 
what would be required of each member of the expedition, Clark chose to 
include York in this exclusive party,” Millner wrote. “Subsequent events 
would show that the realistic and practical Clark was not mistaken in 
this decision.”

‘York was a sensation’

York proved indispensable almost immediately, the journals of Lewis and 
Clark show.

The writings are peppered with references to York’s hunting prowess: He 
shot buffalo, deer and geese alike. (The fact that Lewis and Clark let 
him handle a rifle, not typically permitted for enslaved people, is 
itself a sign of unusual trust and respect.)

In addition to killing animals, York kept an eye out for new and unknown 
species, whose discovery was a major goal of the voyage. The journals 
note that York identified “a Tobaco worm” and, at another point, “a bird 
of a scarlet colour... with a long tail.”

His most critical role may have come during encounters with Native 
American tribes. Native Americans, most of whom had never seen a black 
man before, found York fascinating, awesome and inspiring.

They called him “the big Medicine,” a term signifying “that in which the 
power of god is manifest,” Lewis wrote. Some Native American men even 
asked York to sleep with their wives on the assumption “they would catch 
some of [his] power from such intercourse, transmitted to them through 
their wives,” Ambrose wrote in “Undaunted Courage.”

As the historian summed it up: “York was a sensation.”

The savvy adventurers took advantage of the Native Americans’ 
admiration, sometimes sending York as their ambassador for trading 
negotiations, other times ordering him to dance in front of tribe 
members. How York felt about these forced displays is not recorded.

York undertook a large share of the backbreaking work — paddling, 
portaging, building shelters — required to make the expedition possible. 
York labored to the point of illness and exhaustion, the journals 
reveal. Several times Clark or Lewis mention York suffering from colds, 
fatigue and frostbite, among other ailments.

Despite his own maladies, York consistently demonstrated 
above-and-beyond care and compassion for strangers and fellow voyagers 
alike. The journals record York preparing stewed fruit and tea for the 
sick wives of Native American men and tending — more “attentively” than 
anyone else — to a “dangerously ill” expeditioner (Sgt. Charles Floyd, 
who later died, becoming the only fatality).

Once, near the end of the expedition, Clark was taken with a 
spectacularly bad cold. York dove into the river and swam to an island 
to gather edible plants including Cress and Tongue grass, both herbal 

“Here my Servent York Swam to the Sand bar to geather greens for our 
Dinner,” Clark wrote of the incident. He “returnd with a Sufficient 

‘All but York’

Lewis’s first order of business after the expedition’s conclusion — and 
a few weeks of partying — was to obtain proper recompense for his men.

As he wrote in a letter to Congress, the expeditioners deserved “my 
warmest approbation and thanks; nor will I suppress the expression of a 
hope, that the recollection of services thus faithfully performed will 
meet a just reward in an ample remuneration on the part of our Government.”

The missive was crucial in convincing lawmakers to award the voyagers 
substantial salaries and acres of land. In his letter, Lewis 
specifically listed the names of “all the men ... who had been to the 
Pacific and back” — with one notable exception.

He did not mention York. As a consequence, “all but York enjoyed the 
trappings and attentions of celebrity,” Millner wrote.

Later, Lewis — asked for his advice — counseled Clark against freeing 
York. It is not entirely clear what happened to York after Clark refused 
him freedom. Clark mentioned York for the last time in writing in a July 
1809 letter to his brother, noting that: “I have become displeased with 
him and Shall hire or Sell him.”

The trail then goes dark until 1811, when Clark’s nephew John O’Fallon 
reported in a letter to his uncle that York had been “hired out to a 
severe master in Louisville.” By that point, York’s wife was gone from 
the area: her owner had moved to Natchez, Mississippi, taking her with 
him, according to O’Fallon.

As late as November 1815, York still lived in Louisville and was still 
enslaved by Clark, according to Millner. He was apparently working as a 
wagon driver, sending the profits to Clark in Missouri. At some point — 
no one knows precisely how — York did gain his freedom.

Clark, in an 1832 interview with author Washington Irving, insisted that 
York hated freedom. He said York tried to found a cargo company, failed 
because of poor discipline and decided to return to Clark and to slavery 
— only to die of cholera on the way to St. Louis.

Mountain man Zenas Leonard, however, reported sighting “a Negro man who 
informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis and Clark” in 
a Native American village in Missouri in the 1830s. The man had risen to 
be “quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village, [with] 
all the dignities of a chief,” Leonard wrote.

Neither version of York’s fate is supported by “independent 
documentation,” according to Millner.

“In this case, perhaps it is preferable that the real answer is veiled 
in the smoke of those long-ago western campfires,” Millner wrote. “It 
allows us the chance to grant to York in his last years a measure of the 
prestige, peace, and fulfillment that the racial realities of his day 
and the legacy of two hundred years of faulty scholarship have denied him.”

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