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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: York

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:06am

The enslaved York was the only Black member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. William Clark inherited him from his father and wrote about him in the expedition’s journals, sometimes negatively. Besides the journal references, historians know little of York’s life before or after the expedition. Yet even in the wilderness, York couldn’t achieve equality. Clark was the privileged son of a prominent white family, and York was his dark-skinned servant.

When the expedition wintered in 1803 on Illinois’ Wood River at Camp Dubois, York wasn’t initially welcomed. Several of the Corps of Discovery held Southern racial prejudices. One member tossed sand in York’s face. Clark noted in his journal the incident nearly cost York an eye.

Eventually, York found a place in the corps and was accepted on scouting and hunting parties. Clark wrote that York and Cpl. Joseph Whitehouse worked a two-handed whipsaw together. In another, Clark complained York was too tired and fat and walked too slowly.

York acted as a caregiver several times. He nursed Charles Floyd, who later died during the journey. In the journals, Clark mentioned June 5, 1804, that a cold and sore throat troubled him. York swam the Missouri River to a sandbar and collected chickweed, a homeopathic remedy likely to help.

African Americans couldn’t bear arms in the South. Still, York carried a muzzle-loader to shoot bison, deer, elk and geese throughout the two-year trek. In Nez Perce territory, York voted along with the others on where to spend the winter. The men of the corps were a curiosity to the Nez Perce, but with his dark skin, York intrigued them more. Not believing his skin color, a Nez Perce rubbed York’s skin with sand until it bled, thinking he’d remove its color.

After returning east, members of the expedition, except the enslaved York, received 320 acres and a payment according to their rank, ranging from $5 to $30 per month. Despite his devoted service, Clark didn’t immediately free York upon return. During a discussion with author Washington Irving, Clark claimed he freed his slave and helped York start a drayage company. He told Irving that the business failed because of York’s ineptitude and lethargy. If true, Clark was reinforcing a long-held Southern racial bias that York, like other Blacks, was better off as a slave than free.

Later in his life, Clark freed several slaves. But he didn’t publicly speak of York until 1832. By then, the explorer unkindly described York. Clark believed freedom was York’s downfall, saying he became indolent, slept late, didn’t keep his drayage horses healthy and let customers cheat him.

York was likely the West’s earliest African American explorer, and once free, he faced negotiating a social system unaccepting of him. According to Clark, York moved to Tennessee, dying of cholera there. But other racially biased tales circulated. Some say York spun yarns about the expedition in St. Louis saloons. Trappers returning from the West told tales of an elderly Wyoming Black man living among the Crows, bragging he trekked with Lewis and Clark. After many years of neglect, York is seen as an essential participant in the Corps journey.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

Columbian freelance contributor