York, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Statue of York by Ed Hamilton on Belvedere.


Historical marker for York

A historical marker on the Louisville riverfront commemorating York.

Yesterday’s Black History Month blurb in the Louisville Courier-Journal very appropriately featured York of the famous 1803 to 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Largely forgotten by history until recent years, York made a significant contribution to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the last dozen years, books, poetry, paintings, documentary films, sculpture, and more have been devoted to him. York lived most of his life in Louisville.  As an enslaved African American member of the Clark family, he lived with the Clarks on their farm Mulberry Hill (present day George Rogers Clark Park) from 1785 until 1803. When the expedition returned from the Pacific, Louisville again served at his home until at least 1816. Either in that year or within the next several, William Clark, York’s owner, freed him and set him up in a freight hauling business between Nashville, Tennessee and Richmond, Kentucky, with Nashville as his base. In 1832 Clark reported to the author Washington Irving that York had lost the business and died of cholera in Tennessee. The year and location weren’t specified. York’s sad fate was to be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, forgotten for many years for the important role he played in the exploration and expansion of the United States.

There are three main sources for information on York’s life – the journals of the expedition, Clark’s interview with Irving, and the collections of The Filson. Letters, documents, and ledgers in The Filson’s collection document York’s post expedition life – including his alienation from Clark and the cruel realities of enslavement that so many African Americans suffered – better than any other source. The Filson has been collecting and preserving historical material for almost 128 years and it is our honor to be the repository for significant material documenting the life of York – slave, explorer, and finally free man.

An 1806 document which provides information about York.

James J. Holmberg

3 comments on “York, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

  1. f volmaye

    The letters between William Clark and his older brother Jonathan provide the most detail about York’s life after the Lewis and Clark expedition. Without those letters, we’d nothing about York.

    While Clark told Washington Irving in an interview he’d freed York, I don’t think the correspondence between William and Jonathan supports this.

    After the expedition, William Clark complains bitterly about York to Jonathan in letters for several years:
    *how York isn’t a good worker any more and refused to move with Clark (when York is in Louisville and he, Clark, is working in St. Louis as an Indian Affairs ADministrator)
    *how York wants to be closer to his wife (another slave, who’s owners left Kentucky and moved, taking her–and any children they might’ve had with them)
    *how York has an inflated sense of his worth
    *how York is lazy.

    In one letter, William Clark writes to his nephew, who’d put out York as a sort of laborer-for-hire, he tells his nephew he can put York on a boat to New Orleans if he doesn’t work and behave better, that he should be sold in the slave market there (certain death, as many slaves ended up being sold for sugar plantations in the Caribbean.)

    Given what William Clark *did* write, I think there would’ve been more evidence of his freeing York than just an interview later in Clark’s life.

    There are simply too many other relatives of William Clark who lived and farmed in Kentucky and what was then the Indiana Territory for there not to be some sort of letter, farm book, court records, farm/deeds, etc.

  2. admin

    Much of the information you cite comes from William Clark’s letters to his brother Jonathan published under the title Dear Brother in 2002. I was the editor for the letters. They are the single best source for York’s post expedition life re: his falling out of favor with Clark and subsequent treatment. However the last mention of York in the letters is in August 1809. Jonathan died in November 1811 and we know from documentary evidence that York was still a slave in November 1815. That item and other sources allow us to trace York to November 1815 where he is lost in the record until the 1832 Irving interview. Unfortunately, historical sources are often incomplete. While sources tracing York’s life after 1815 might exist they have not yet come to light (and I’ve thoroughly searched). It is hoped they eventually will. More material has been destroyed through the years than has been preserved. Clark family papers are no exception. While many have been preserved, many have also been destroyed due to accident, ignorance, and neglect. Some of these undoubtedly helped trace York’s life. But what cannot be dismissed in any conclusion about York’s fate is that Clark knew people who could and apparently did keep him informed about York, what he reported about York being a wagoneer is proven by documents, and while engaging in slaveowner rationalization about York regretting his freedom he had no reason to lie about him dying in Tennessee. The best source for information on York is the revised edition (2000) of Robert Betts’s In Search of York.
    – Jim Holmberg

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