Alas, poor York

January 21, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

There is a risk to knowing more than a little history (or religion or politics).  Learning more than the popularized cartoon version of traditional history lessons has a way of contaminating comforting myths.   See here and here.

Take, for example, the story of William Clark of Lewis and Clark.  Everyone knows about the 1803 expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory.  That journey makes those intrepid explorers heroes, right?  Clark is also presented as an early multi-culturalist, in that the expedition was joined by Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who served as their interpreter.
My 8-year old daughter is currently studying Lewis and Clark at school.   She mentioned that the explorers were not in good spirits when they reached Fort Clatsop (a fort they built in Oregon, along the Columbia River).  I wondered out loud if they were glum because they were utterly exhausted and missing their families.  My daughter then mentioned that one of the men never made it home to see his family.

His name was “York.”

York was forced to go on the expedition because he was William Clark’s slave, having been inherited from Clark’s father.  He was the same age as Clark.  The journals present York as a “large, strong man, who carried a gun and shared the duties and risks of the expedition in full.”

And when the wildly successful expedition returned, York was given his fair share of the spoils, right?  Well, not exactly.  This, from Wikipedia:

After the Corps returned, York apparently asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. Clark refused, claiming financial difficulties. York, who was married to a woman owned by a different master, pleaded with Clark to be allowed to return to the Louisville area where his wife’s owner lived. Clark’s letters to his brother reveal increasing irritation with York. Feeling that York was being disobedient, Clark threatened to hire him out to a severe master; he also “gave him a Severe trouncing”, and even had York jailed briefly. York was finally sent to Louisville and hired out to a demanding master for at least two years.

Clark may have set York free sometime after 1816 and set him up in a freight business in Tennessee and Kentucky which later failed; he then tried to rejoin Clark in St. Louis, but died of cholera on the way. There are, however, some doubts about this story; he may simply have been hired out to the owner of a freight business. At least one later account suggests he may have escaped to live on the frontier.

Reading this passage made me wince.  It made me embarrassed that I’ve been carrying around such a simplistic version of the Lewis and Clark story.  But I’m also relieved that my second-grade daughter is learning more about Lewis and Clark than I ever learned in school.  Her teachers aren’t avoiding history’s pimples.  For that, I am grateful. 

Does the story of York lessen Clark’s great accomplishments as an explorer?  Not clear.  After all, when we honor Clark, aren’t we honoring him as both an explorer and as a person?  Isn’t character an implied part of honoring one for his or her accomplishments?

In the end, York is a tragic figure, as tragic as any you’ll ever read about in an Shakespearean tale.  Small consolation that York has been honored with a statute near Louisville


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, History

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here's a night-time snapshot I took of the statue when I was in Louisville in June 2006

    <img src="; alt="York Statue in Louisville">

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