The Enslaved African who Traveled with Lewis & Clark Mysteriously Returns to the Pacific
by D. Amari Jackson
The land was new, at least, to them. Despite their 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French—some 828,000 square miles of land spanning the Mississippi River in the East to the Rocky Mountains in the West, the Gulf of Mexico in the South to the Canadian border in the North—they were nonetheless outsiders crossing a beautiful yet precarious region full of a native people who could not fathom owning a piece of nature, something the Creator bestowed so freely. Led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and directly instructed by President Thomas Jefferson, the government-sponsored expedition was aimed at extending the American fur trade while exploring the unmapped regions of a new territory Jefferson hoped to expand all the way to the mighty Pacific. Among the entourage of 45 was an enslaved African named York who played a pivotal role in advancing the two-year Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific Rim, navigating rough terrain and waterways, handling firearms, killing game, and negotiating with natives for food and safe passage. Despite his important contributions to the successful expedition, and the substantial acreage and monetary rewards gained by its white participants, York was refused his freedom by his owner, Clark, upon their return to the latter’s Kentucky plantation. To add insult to injury, in petitioning Congress for their rewards, Clark never mentioned York or his valuable role in the historic mission.
However, two weeks ago, in an extraordinary turn of events, York returned to the Pacific Rim once more in the form of a cast bronze sculpted head erected by an anonymous artist in the dead of night at Portland’s Mount Tabor Park. The mysteriously rendered bust appeared atop an empty granite pedestal that formerly housed a statue of prominent 19th century conservative and newspaper editor, Harvey Scott. The sizable statue of Scott, a vocal opponent of women’s suffrage, was toppled last year amidst national protests supporting the Movement for Black Lives.
“I want to stay anonymous to keep the conversation about the subject,” the artist told Artnet News, at the time of the discovery. Given there are no known images of York produced during his lifetime, the artist, who only identified as a “white male,” pulled from the research of Charles Neal whose efforts led to the statue of York by sculptor Alison Saar that has graced Portland’s Lewis and Clark University for over a decade. The new Mount Tabor Park bust, insists the mysterious artist, “pays homage to York at a time when we all need to remember the important role that African Americans have played in our history and reflect on the tragedy of slavery—a tragedy that continues to echo.”
“I think it’s just a really beautiful, simple image,” says Saar, of the mysterious bust. The renowned Los Angeles-based sculptor and mixed media artist read in the newspaper that the anonymous artist was “not Black, but I’m not one of those people who assumes that only Black people can make art about Black people. So, if it’s beautiful and it comes from a good place, then I welcome any representation we can get out there.”
Unfortunately, such representations have been hampered by the limited information on York, most coming from the writings of Clark, the man who owned him.
So who was York? And what we do know about the life of the enslaved African increasingly regarded the first Black man to cross North America and reach the Pacific?
It was far from being an honor since we do know that York had no choice in the matter. Born on a southern plantation to two enslaved laborers owned by Clark’s father, York and Clark played together as boys. But when the boys came of age, playtime was over as the relationship became one of master-servant with Clark ultimately inheriting York as part of his father’s estate.
Upon the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Lewis invited his former army associate, Clark, to join his expedition across the newly acquired territory, and the two assembled what became the Corps of Discovery by recruiting military men that had demonstrated bravery in battle. In addition to over two dozen young soldiers, they recruited a French-Indian interpreter and numerous French oarsmen and navigators more familiar with the territory than they. Given his strong six-foot, 200-pound frame, Clark lobbied to bring York along, a decision of which the latter—reportedly married not long before—had no say.
However, others did. In May 1804, as Clark’s contingency left Camp River Dubois near St. Louis to join Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri, several soldiers questioned Clark’s decision to bring an enslaved African on the mission. A month into the journey, it was apparent that some had acted upon their hatred toward York as Clark’s June 20th journal entry casually juxtaposed the natural beauty of his surroundings with the abuse of the man he owned:
“Set out after a heavy Shower of rain and proceeded on the Same Course of last night… passed a large butifull Prarie on the S. S. (southside) opposit a large Island, Calld Saukee Prarie, a gentle breese from the S. W. (southwest),” penned Clark. “Some butiful high lands on the L. S. (left side) passed Som verry Swift water to day, I saw Pelicans to day on a Sand bar, my servant York nearly loseing an eye by a man throwing Sand into it…”
If the abusive environment of the Corps wasn’t bad enough for York, the actual environment, though beautiful, brought its share of challenges as well. Navigating the Missouri River was both arduous and precarious given the strong current, extreme heat, and relentless insects. As the expedition reached present-day Sioux City, Iowa, one of its members, a Sergeant Charles Floyd, died of what was believed to have been a burst appendix. That December, just prior to the onset of winter, York was among a 15-member party sent on a dangerous buffalo hunt near present-day Washburn, North Dakota to replenish the expedition’s dwindling food supply. “Several men returned a little frost bit,” wrote Clark in his journal, noting York among the victims. “Servents feet also frosted.”
The Corps of Discovery report revealed that interactions with native populations were generally good during the expedition. Councils were held with native groups; peace medals were gifted to the most important chiefs of the regions they traversed. These good relations were significantly attributed to, according to Clark, the fascination of the natives with York, “awestruck” by the first Black man many of them had ever seen. One account, captured in Thomas P. Slaughter’s Exploring Lewis and Clark, depicts Idaho’s Nez Perce natives surrounding York and attempting to “rub the black off with coarse sand” until blood oozed from the chosen spot. Exploiting the situation and his servant, Clark, in his journal, reported how he told the fascinated natives “that before I cought him he was wild & lived upon people” and that, for York, “young children was verry good eating…” Clark further encouraged the Nez Perce they encountered to closely examine York while ordering the enslaved African to dance like a buffoon or put on like a monster. The impact of these encounters was indelible as Slaughter would write about how the Nez Perce, as late as the 1960s, maintained an oral history where they remembered “the Raven’s Son for his color and the mystery he embodied”; and how members of the tribe wanted to slaughter the white contingency near the Bitterroot Mountains but feared retaliation from “the black man.”
York’s value to the expedition didn’t stop there. The enslaved African was pivotal in securing food from the Nez Perce for starving expedition members and even cared for sick natives as well as white explorers. Along with his negotiation skills and hunting prowess, he built shelters; paddled canoes; identified species of animals and insects; cared for sick expedition members; nursed them with the herbs he identified; and did so while suffering from sickness, fatigue, and frostbite.
In November 1805, a year and a half after departing Camp River Dubois near St. Louis, the presidentially commissioned Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean upon floating down the Columbia River. There, they settled in for the winter, erecting Fort Clatsop on the south side of the river near present-day Astoria, Oregon, roughly 100 miles from Portland. During their stay, the expedition further explored the region, recording information on its inhabitants, climate, wildlife, and topography.
Four months in, upon the onset of spring, the expedition began their return trip and arrived, in September 1806, back in St. Louis. They had traveled over 8000 miles in less than 2 1/2 years and lost only one explorer. The historic expedition was regarded an overwhelming success given its substantial scope and accomplishments; its production of new knowledge regarding what would become the American West; its associated abundance of scientific information on native populations, climate, topography, and species of plants, wildlife, and insects; and its political significance in terms of buoying American imperial claims of dominion in North America.
As for York and the native populations he’d interacted with along the way, the expedition was anything but a success. The latter, over the following years, would be subject to mass genocide and forced removal from the lands their ancestors had nurtured and worshipped by the brutal westward expansion of the American nation. The former—despite pleas to Clark, the generous rewards bestowed on other expedition members, and his pivotal contributions to the most historic expedition in American history—would be denied his freedom and enslaved once more.
Saar was well aware of this tragic inequity and its larger implications when sculpting her 2010 tribute to York at Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. “The trouble with a lot of monuments is that history tries to rewrite itself and whitewash its erroneous past,” offers Saar. “So, what I really wanted this piece to be about was how York was mistreated, how he was a slave when he started the exhibition, and how he was still a slave after the expedition. You look at the history books now and they are all singing his praises and how valuable he was on a number of levels.” But few, she points out, really talk about the harsh “reality of how he’s treated during the expedition.”
After the expedition, his treatment worsened. Reportedly “sulking” from the denial of his freedom, York was accused of “misconduct” after an incident with Clark, removed from his position as body servant, and hired out to a ruthless Louisville, Kentucky plantation owner named Young. Some sources have reported that York’s wife was in the Louisville area, as a justification for Clark’s actions; others claimed she had been sold off before he arrived at Young’s farm. Though information would grow increasingly sketchy, Clark later told writer Washington Irving that he eventually freed York, who then opened a business as a wagon operator. The explorer claimed his former servant failed in business, regretted his freedom, and died from cholera on his way back to St. Louis. Yet, other reports, including that of trapper Zenas Leonard who traveled to the Rocky Mountains in 1832, mention an elderly black man living among the Crow natives in Wyoming who spoke of originally journeying to the area with Lewis and Clark.
In her own search for balance and truth, Saar conducted substantial research on the enslaved frontiersman before creating the college monument, including a close study of the journals of Lewis and Clark. She used the back of her sculpted figure to cite both the positive and negative things said about him regarding his role in the expedition, the latter including what “they wrote about him being insolent.” Further, explains Saar, “I wanted to show him with scars on his back” given “one of the things they said was that he needed a good trouncing, and to show that this was not an egalitarian relationship.”
Saar’s scars run deep with multiple symbolic meanings alongside the apparent physical violence to York, including how they, and the expedition itself, represented “the stealing of the land of the indigenous people as well.” Unfortunately, York “got dragged along on an expedition to basically invade other people’s lands and make that western expansion possible at the cost of indigenous people,” stresses Saar. It was an historic event “I don’t really approve of. I say that as a person living in California,” she acknowledges, noting the expedition “made my existence here and now in California a possibility.” Still, it “was just a shame” how they treated someone “so vital to their survival.”
Regarding the mysterious new bust of York in Portland’s Mount Tabor Park, and the sensational way it was rendered, Saar focuses on the bigger picture. “I think what’s good about these type of things is, it gets people curious as to what the truth is,” she says, further characterizing the sculpture as straight forward and “not overly didactic.”
As a result of such effective simplicity, adds Saar, “people will go and do some research, and hopefully they will delve deep enough to learn the full truth of what York’s experience really was.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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