York (1770 – before 1832[1]) 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,[2] but participated as a full member of the expedition. When they got home, York asked for his freedom but Clark denied him, saying he relied on him too much. A few years later after more asking to be freed, York was finally released.[3]

York – Corps of Discovery Explorer
York Statue.jpg
Diedbefore 1832
Occupationexplorer, body servant, businessman
EmployerClark Family, U.S. government, self-employed
Notable work
Helping cross the United States.
Home townLadysmith, Caroline County, Virginia
MovementLewis and Clark Expedition
Parent(s)Old York
RelativesJuba (half-brother), Nancy (half-sister), Scipio (half-brother), Daphney (half-sister)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1803–1806
Ranksergeant (honorary posthumous – Presidential citation)
UnitCorps of Discovery

Early lifeEdit

York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He and several members of his family were owned by the Clark family. The will of John Clark III (father of George Rogers and William Clark) states[4]:

I give and bequeath to my son Edmund... three negroes, to wit Peter (Venius child), and Scipio and Daphny (Rose's children)... I give and bequeath to my son William... one negro man named York, also old York and his wife Rose, and their two children, Nancy and Juba; also three old negroes, Tame, Cupid and Harry.

The most plausible family tree based on this description and others is that York was the son of Old York, not by Rose, that Scipio (also spelled Sippo, Seppo, Sep, and Pipo, likely named the same as the Roman general Scipio Africanus) and Daphny (also spelled Dafney, Daphney, and Daphne) were Rose's children not by Old York, and that Nancy and Juba were Old York and Rose's biological children[5]. This would make Scipio, Daphney, Juba, and Nancy the half-siblings of York.

William Clark called York his "playmate".[6] York was left to William in his father's will.[4] He had a fiancée whom he rarely saw and likely lost contact with her after 1811 when she was sold/sent to Mississippi. It is not known if York fathered any children.[7]

Lewis and Clark ExpeditionEdit

Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable.[8] After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. According to one account discussed below, Clark eventually gave him his freedom.

"It is shown that York had gained a little freedom while on the expedition with Lewis and Clark. It is mentioned in journals that York went on scouting trips and going to trade with villages, experiencing freedom while doing that. Clark named two geographic discoveries after him; York's Eight Islands and York's Dry Creek, indicating that Clark may have respected him. When a poll was taken to decide where the group should stay over one winter, York's vote was recorded. He was also able to swim, unlike some of the men who were with them on their expedition.[9]

He was very important to the expedition because the Native Americans worshiped him, so they were willing to trade with the rest of the expedition. Because of his dark skin, they thought he was the god of the black bear.[citation needed]

Later years and ultimate fateEdit

As to York's later life and death, semi-contemporaries Washington Irving and Zenas Leonard give contradictory accounts. When Irving interviewed Clark in 1832, Clark claimed to have freed York, but that York regretted being free because he was a failure at business, and died trying to get back to serve his master as a slave again in St. Louis. Some contemporary historians doubt the accuracy of Clark's story, for it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people.[10] Others hold out the possibility that, as Clark's childhood playmate and long-time companion, the two men possessed a measure of friendship and mutual respect that was atypical for the time.[11] However, manumission laws and practices of the era often required freed slaves to leave the area, and their family and friends.

Leonard reported meeting with an African man living among the Crows in north-central Wyoming in 1834, writing:

In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark – with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since - which is about ten or twelve years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose [sic] to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately.[12]

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.[13]

In the PBS series Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, director Ken Burns states that 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.[14]


Popular cultureEdit

In 1999 Kentucky actor and writer Hasan Davis evoked York through the Kentucky Humanities Council's Chautauqua Living History program. As the Bicentennial Commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition neared, Hasan was invited to share York's story along the trail ad across the nation as part of the national retelling of the expedition and its impact on the nation, native communities and future generations.

In 2019 Hasan's book The Journey of York: Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was released by Capstone Publishing.

Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker has written two books of poetry about York: Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (2004), and When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (2008). Both books were published by the University of Kentucky Press.

In his novel Little Big Man, Thomas Berger mentions York as having likely been the father of some very dark skinned Indians.

The opera York (composer Bruce Trinkley and librettist Jason Charnesky), based on York's life, was composed for the first international conference on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and performed at Penn State Opera Theatre.[15]

The play York was created by actor and African drummer David Casteal and playwright Bryan Harnetiaux, and premiered at Spokane Civic theatre on April 29, 2005, as directed by Susan Hardie and performed by David Casteal, (with performances in New York City in July 2006). In commemoration of Black History Month, the play was again presented on February 27–28, 2016 with David Casteal returning in the lead role as York in a one-man performance.[16]


A statue of York, by sculptor Ed Hamilton, with plaques commemorating the Lewis and Clark Expedition and his participation in it, stands at Louisville's Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, next to the wharf on the Ohio River. Another statue of York stands on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Dedicated on May 8, 2010, it does not focus on York's face, since no images of York are known to exist. Instead, it features fragments of William Clark's maps "scarred" on the statue's back.[17] (NW York Street in Portland also commemorates the explorer.[18]). Yorks Islands are an archipelago of islands in the Missouri River near Broadwater County, Montana,[19][20] which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named "York's 8 Islands",[21] but have since become known as "Yorks Islands" or simply "York Island".

In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of honorary sergeant in the United States Army.[22]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Robert Betts, In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific With Lewis and Clark. University Press of Colorado, 1985 (revised 2002).
  • James Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. Yale University Press, 2002, 2nd Printing
  • Catherine McGrew Jaime, York Proceeded On: The Lewis & Clark Expedition through the Eyes of Their Forgotten Member. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011


  1. ^ "Montana Medicine Show: York", KGLT, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 14, 2016. Available on-site or online in the US only.
  2. ^ The Slave Who Went with Them, Brian Hall, Time, June 2002
  3. ^ William Clark: Indian diplomat Jay Buckley, University kora Press, 2008, pg 20
  4. ^ a b *William English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778–1783, and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1896, p. 49.
  5. ^ Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark James J. Holmberg, Yale University Press, 2002
  6. ^ Áhati N. N. Touré (April 2006). "Fallout over Freedom". Lewis and Clark.org. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  7. ^ "The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery". United States National Park Service. April 2006. Archived from the original on March 13, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  8. ^ Robert Betts (1985). In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark. Colorado Associated University Press. ISBN 0-87081-714-0. page citation needed
  9. ^ http://0-web.b.ebscohost.com.dunnlib.simpson.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=3a67c719-8ccf-433b-9715-3faa4c9eeeef%40sessionmgr113&hid=101&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVybCx1aWQsY29va2llJnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=a9h&AN=6902662
  10. ^ York of the Corps of Discovery: Interpretations of York's Character and His Role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Darrell Millner, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2003, pg 10, 13-4, 57.
  11. ^ From Sea to Shining Sea. James Alexander Thom, Ballantine Books, 2010.
  12. ^ Zenas Leonard (1839). "Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard". Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  13. ^ https://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/living/idx_5.html
  14. ^ "Lewis and Clark, Inside the Corps, York". PBS. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  15. ^ "York: The Voice of Freedom". Pennsylvania State University. Archived from the original on March 5, 2004. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  16. ^ "York". Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  17. ^ "The Source". Lewis and Clark College. Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  18. ^ "Streets of the Alphabet District".
  19. ^ U.S. Board on Geographic Names, listing for "York's Island".
  20. ^ Crimson Bluffs Chapter, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc., Dedication Ceremony for York's Islands Fishing Access Commemoration. Archived May 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Copy of Captain William Clark's map for July 24, 1805 with "York's 8 Islands" marked in his handwriting. Archived July 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ "President Clinton: Celebrating the Legacy of Lewis and Clark and Preserving America's Natural Treasures". FirstGov. January 17, 2001. Retrieved 2010-12-19.

External linksEdit