[Marxism] An enslaved man was crucial to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s success. Clark refused to free him afterward.
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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
“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.
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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
‘York was a sensation’
York proved indispensable almost immediately, the journals of Lewis and
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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