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.