The Slave Who Helped Make History With Lewis and Clark

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, our third president, more than doubled the size of the United States by closing a deal with the French called the Louisiana Purchase. This purchase added about 828,000 square miles of territory to the United States. It was vast, and to most Americans, it was unknown. Of course, to the thousands of indigenous tribes who lived in those vast lands, it was home, the place that had nurtured and supported them for hundreds of generations.

Jefferson, as you may know, was a complex man. He was one of our Founding Fathers, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, and a true renaissance man. He was an architect and an avid scientist with a profound curiosity about many things. But like so many of his status in that time, especially in the southern states of the new country, he was also a slave owner.

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Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity about this vast land that had just been added to the still infant country led him to come up with a plan to send a military unit into that expansive territory, both to discover what was there and to study its flora, fauna, geology, river systems, and everything that could be found out about the many peoples who lived there.

Jefferson pulled together the Corps of Discovery in that same year and commissioned them to undertake this journey into the unknown and to draw pictures, collect samples of the flora, and keep records of everything, including their encounters with the native peoples. The Corps of Discovery is known to most of us as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

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From May 14, 1804, to September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery covered almost 8,000 miles by river, by foot, and by horseback from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Coast in Astoria, Oregon, and back. It is one of the most remarkable and extraordinary stories of exploration in our history.

The Corps of Discovery was made up of 2 officers (Meriweather Lewis and William Clark), 5 NCOs, 30 enlisted men, and three permanent and 12 temporary civilians. One of those three permanent civilians was compelled to go on that long and potentially dangerous expedition into the unknown by the fact that he was a slave owned by William Clark, one of the expedition’s officers.

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We only know this man by one name: York. You see, as a slave, he had no legal right to a last name. He had been assigned as a young boy to be the “body servant” to Clark, who was at that time 14 years old. His parents’ names were Old York and Rose and they were the property of William Clark’s father, John Clark III. Young York was a few years younger when he was assigned to the 14-year-old William as his “body servant.” York was about 30 years old when he accompanied Clark on the Corps of Discovery’s mission into the Louisana Purchase territory in 1804.

Though York was a slave, he would become essential to much of the Corps’s success in their encounters with the Native American peoples along the way. He was treated with much respect by the Indians they encountered, who had never seen a Black man before, and he proved to be an asset in the mostly successful relations the Corps had with the many different tribes they met along the way.

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York was as skilled with a rifle as he was at physical labor. On one occasion, he was credited with a courageous act that saved the life of Meriweather Lewis from a bear attack. He was a fine hunter and helped on many occasions to keep the party fed. He was skilled also at caring for the sick and injured. He proved to be as curious as Lewis and Clark and helped to discover many of the before unknown plant species that they encountered.

While York was on this expedition with Lewis and Clark, he experienced an unprecedented amount of freedom and even a sense of equality for a man who was legally a slave. When the expedition reached the West Coast, he was allowed to vote along with all the other members of the Corps as to where they would stay over the winter months.

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But when the expedition was over, York was still a slave. It is easy to understand that, after having the experiences he had, sharing in the decisions and responsibilities of that expedition, he had a difficult time transitioning back into the life of a slave when he returned back home with Clark.

York is said to have petitioned Clark for his freedom many times after their return, but Clark refused and finally became angry enough with York that he hired him out for work in Louisville, Kentucky.

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The American writer Washington Irving interviewed Clark in later years and was told that Clark had eventually freed York and given him six horses and a large wagon to start a drayage business between Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia. York is known to have been a successful businessman. According to most historians, York died from cholera in 1832.

Photo: YouTube/Ms. Deis

The Corps of Discovery was one of the most successful scientific missions in our history. It was unique in its makeup, in its mission, and in its mostly successful efforts. York, who was born in 1770, died in 1832. His entire life was lived within the history of slavery in this country, yet he participated fully as one of the Corps of Discovery’s most valued and important members.

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