Sankofa Studies

The Lewis and Clark Expedition…and York (the enslaved man who helped make it successful)

February 14, 2020
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York (1770 – before 1832) was an African-American explorer best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Enslaved by William Clark’s father and passed down through a will to William Clark, he performed hard manual labor without pay, but participated as a full member of the expedition.

When Meriwether Lewis invited Clark, to accompany him on a journey across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory in 1803, the two conferred at length about the men that would accompany them on what would be called the Corps of Discovery. They selected soldiers that had demonstrated bravery in battle. They chose interpreters and French oarsmen who knew the country better than they. And they chose York, Clark’s 6-feet, 200-pound “body servant.”

During the two years of the Corps of Discovery expedition, York handled firearms, killed game and helped to navigate trails and waterways. In early December 1804, York was one of 15 men on a dangerous buffalo hunt to replenish their supply. Native Americans they encountered were reportedly awestruck with York’s appearance, and he was later allowed to have a vote in key decisions.

York had experienced freedom on his adventures with Lewis and Clark. He was part of the team, and he contributed just like the rest with hunting, fishing, putting up tents etc. He had crossed rivers and mountains on the expedition and had a taste of what true freedom is like. On the expedition he felt like a free man, but when he returned east he was a slave again.

According sources, York continued to work for Clark as a slave after the expedition. York asked for his freedom and at first Clark refused but did send him to Kentucky so he could be closer to his wife. Ten years after the expedition Clark granted York his freedom and York worked in the freighting business in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1832, York died from cholera.

Read more about York here:

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