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

Ed Hamilton's York statue on Riverfront Plaza in Louisville. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

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 animals.

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 compensation.

“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.

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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 remedies.

“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 quantity.”

‘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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