On the Belvedere, a plaza in downtown Louisville that overlooks the Ohio River, you’ll find an impressive statue of George Rogers Clark.
Just over his right shoulder, several paces away, you’ll find the equally impressive statue of another man. The man is muscular and broad shouldered. A duck hangs from his right hand, a gun from his left. He’s gazing back towards George Rogers Clark, or perhaps beyond him. His eyes seem to be searching the horizon beyond Clark, beyond the falls of the Ohio, beyond Indiana, maybe all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The man is York. He was the slave of William Clark, George Rogers Clark’s younger brother.
York was “given” to William Clark by his father. They were roughly the same age. York spent his life caring for the needs of Clark. We know little of him, save for a handful of mentions in the memoirs and letters of Clark. We catch only glimpses of York, and only then through the cloudy lens of one who saw himself as York’s master.
But for two glorious years, York’s existence might have been completely invisible to us and lost to history. For two key years of his life, York was pressed into service with the Corps of Discovery, the team Clark led alongside Meriwether Lewis. From May 14, 1804 – September 23, 1806, Lewis and Clark led a team of 31 men across the continental United States to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to York, the group also included Sacajawea, a young Shoshone woman who served as their guide and interpreter, her husband and their infant son.
There’s evidence that on that journey that York was not only a tremendous asset, but achieved some measure of parity. He hunted to provide food for the group, and was permitted to carry a gun, something he would have been absolutely forbidden to do back in the “civilized” world. The nations they met along the way were fascinated by York’s dark skin, tightly curled hair and impressive stature, and treated him with deference and respect. He was even allowed to cast a vote on where the corps would spend the winter.
How bitter it must have been for him to return to St. Louis, where the party was greeted with adulation. He was received as a hero, only to watch as the members of the Corps were rewarded for their service with grants of land and extra pay.
What was York’s reward? Nothing.
He asked for his freedom. Clark refused, and continued to refuse for many years. His reasoning? York’s contributions were just not that big a deal, certainly not enough to warrant setting him free.
“I did wish to do well by him. but as he has got Such a notion about freedom and his emence Services … I do not think with him, that his Services has been So great/or my Situation would promit me to liberate him,” Clark wrote in a 1808 letter.
A remarkable statement, considering that York saved Clark and other members of the Corps from a flash flood during the expedition. Clark literally owed York his life.
York’s ultimate fate is unclear. Clark later told author Washington Irving that he had finally granted him his freedom, and that York ran an unsuccessful freight business in Louisville. According to this account, York eventually tried to make his way back to Clark’s care, and died of cholera on the way.
Another account says that York eventually fled bondage, and made his way instead to live among the Crows in Wyoming.
I know which ending I prefer.
How rich it would be to hear York’s story in his own words. To hear what he thought about the deep wilderness, the rushing rivers, the high majestic mountains he crossed. What did he think the first time he gazed out across the Pacific, the first African-American man to do so?
What was it like meeting Native Americans, and seeing in their eyes something he must have never seen from anyone else – awe and respect?
I don’t know how I would ask him about what his relationship was like with Clark following their return. I’m not sure how prepared I would be to hear about being conscripted out to harsh masters, in hopes York would be chastened and would forget the taste of freedom he’d enjoyed on the expedition. It would be difficult to know whether or not I should ask about his wife, who was sold away from him, down the river to New Orleans, never to be seen by him again.
Some stories are difficult to hear. I suspect York’s would be among those. But how important it would be to hear his story, in his own words, and understand the man standing in the shadows of history with his eyes fixed on the western sky.
Whose voice would you most like to hear?