(ca. 1772 - before 1832)
Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806) to the Pacific Ocean
York was the first African American to cross the United States from coast to coast. Born a slave belonging to the Clark family, York was assigned as a boy to be William Clark's servant. He moved with the Clarks from Virginia to Jefferson County in 1785 and grew to maturity on the frontier, learning all the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness. York was an experienced traveler by horse and boat and traveled extensively in the U.S. with William Clark.
In July 1803 Clark accepted an invitation from his old army friend, Meriwether Lewis to join him as co-commander of an exploring venture to the Pacific ordered by President Thomas Jefferson. Clark began recruiting men from the Louisville area for the Corps of Discovery. Clark decided York would also go, but he was never an official member of the corps.
( west plaque )
On October 14, 1803, Lewis and Clark met in Louisville, forming their historic partnership. On October 26, Captains Lewis and Clark, the "nine young men from Kentucky," and York pushed off from Clarkesville, Indiana, down the Ohio.
York participated in the expedition's work, dangers, and hardships and acquired a decree of equality
and freedom he had never before experienced as a slave. He risked his life searching for Clark, Sacagawea, and her baby in a flash flood. He hunted and fished, nursed the sick and injured, went on scouting expeditions and traded with the American Indians. York's important contributions are chronicled in the expedition journals. The captains permitted York to voice his opinion on where their 1805-1906 winter quarters should be established, clearly demonstrating the level of equality and respect he had earned.
When Indians who had never seen a black man before were encountered, York's skin - the very thing that marked him as inferior and a slave in white society of that day - signified him as someone special and spiritually powerful. They considered him as superior to his white companions and were amazed by his strength and agility. The captains used this influence that York wielded to help advance the expedition. The Indians named York "Big Medicine" to indicate his believed spiritual power and uniqueness.
( east plaque )
Upon the corps' return York was expected to resume his old life as a slave, but the taste of equality, superiority and even freedom he had enjoyed on the expedition had changed him. When Clark moved to St. Louis in 1808 and took York with him, York was separated from his wife. The life-long relationship of Clark and
York - albeit master and slave - ruptured at this point. After the summer of 1809 the two men were rarely together. York was hired out in Louisville to different men - some of whom mistreated him.
Eventually, William Clark granted York freedom, but it was at least ten years after the expedition's return. York's ultimate fate is not definitely known. One ending has him returning to the Rocky Mountains where he lived as a respected chief among the Crow Indians. The most likely ending, as reported by Clark, has York being set up in a freight hauling business by Clark, losing the business, regretting getting his freedom, and dying of cholera in Tennessee sometime before 1832, a broken man trying to return to his former master.
Whether York returned to the West that he had explored, or was consigned to an unmarked pauper's grave may never be known, but this is known - York made an important contribution to the greatest exploring venture in American history. Louisville is proud to honor this famous explorer ... this famous Louisvillian ... this famous African American ... this famous American.
( south plaque )
( a map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition )