York was a Black explorer who was born into slavery in the 1770s. He achieved his fame as the sole Black member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition. It was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. It began near St. Louis, made its way westward, and passed through the continental divide to reach the Pacific coast.
Virginia plantation slave owner, John Clark, selected young York as his son William’s body servant, around 1784 when the Clark family moved to the Falls of the Ohio River (Louisville) where they established the Mulberry Hill plantation. William Clark inherited the Clark estate, including York, in 1799. York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He was one of three children.
York drew a significant amount of attention. He was said to have been large and extremely strong with striking features. York often was paraded among the Indians as an object of curiosity. Quite simply, most Indians the expedition encountered had never seen a black man before, let alone one with York’s imposing stature.
As Clark wrote Oct. 9, 1804, “Many came to view us all day, much astonished at my black servant, who did not lose the opportunity of displaying his powers. This nation never saw a black man before.” The same happened the next day in the Arikara village: “Those Indians were much astonished at my servant, they never saw a black man before, all flocked around him and examined him from top to toe.”
Clark often ordered York to spend time dancing for the Indian crowd. The Indians were often wowed by his movement. sometime after 1815, Clark freed York and provided him with six horses and a wagon to operate a freighting service between Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Kentucky.
The final fate of York is unclear. It is said that York struggled to survive, as a free man in the slaveholding South. He became a heavy drinker, entertaining companions with stories about his adventures with the expedition—stories that reportedly became taller with each telling. York died of cholera sometime between 1822.