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Black News and News Makers in History: York

York, slave of William Clark, explorer, scout, Native American liaison, and the only slave and African American on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

York's birthday is celebrated on November 12, 1770. York, his father, his mother Rose and younger sister and brother Nancy and Juba, were slaves of the Clark family. York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He was William Clark's servant from boyhood, around age 15. Upon the death of William Clark's father, William inherited York and his parents.

In the late 1780s, they moved to Kentucky with the Clark family. There York grew up in an environment where race relations were more humane than in Virginia. Some slaves handled guns; others were able to buy goods on credit. Some worked in mines alongside white men. The forest environment there might have encouraged York to hone the wilderness skills that would later become invaluable on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Clark recruited nine Kentuckians and began training in October 1803. The group included York and left a few weeks later; it was called the Corps of Discovery. York left his family, which included a wife, to participate in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Historians say York quickly earned Clark's respect as a scout and hunter, even carrying a gun (commonly forbidden for slaves). The Lewis and Clark Expedition journals attest to his skill in scouting, hunting and field medicine. There has been speculation as to why Clark brought York, the only slave on the expedition, along. It may have been his back woods experience, or the fact that he knew how to care for the sickly Clark.

While many of the expedition members mistreated York, York fascinated Native Americans, who had never seen a black man before. Calling York "big Medison," some Indians ascribed healing powers to him. On the expedition, York more than pulled his weight—hunting, guarding, paddling, pushing—yet Clark did not free him until several years after the end of the expedition.

Often at the expense of punishment, York continuously requested his freedom to be near his wife, owned by someone else, however he was consistently denied his freedom. Finally, he was freed some time after 1815. Clark gave him a wagon and horses for a freight-hauling venture, but the business failed and York eventually died of cholera in Wyoming, probably between 1822 and 1832.

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes York, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, this week in Black historyA statue of York, 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.

The opera "York", 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.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of sergeant in the US Army.

Compiled from www.anothershadeofcolor.com, Wikipedia, and http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lewisandclark/photogallery_06.html.

 
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