With the current wave of interest in black history, authentic Negro heroes have been eagerly sought in the American past. It has been hard going, since the disposition of the white majority from colonial times until rather recently was to prevent blacks from playing any role that could possibly be viewed as heroic, and to ignore the exceptions that failed to conform to majority prejudices. And indeed, where a black man’s historical reputation has overcome all this, it has sometimes been in despite of honest historical evidence. There is little to prove, for example, that Crispus Attucks, the hero of the Boston Massacre, was not more of a hoodlum than a patriot.
It is therefore pleasant to celebrate a black man who quite unexpectedly became something of a hero, whose credentials are indubitable, and who has remained curiously neglected.
His name was York—just York. He was the manservant of William Clark, and he was the only black man to be part of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, which set out for the western sea in the spring of 1804. For that matter, York was the only servant in the party, and in the early days of the expedition he was kept busy on chores deemed appropriate to his station.
“Here my Servent York Swam to the Sand bar to geather Greens for our Dinner,” Clark noted, without undue care over his orthography, as the corps poled its way slowly up the Missouri. While York got the greens, Lewis’ dog took care of the rabbits.
But it wasn’t long before York’s status began to undergo a subtle change. For as the party went farther west and encountered various tribes of Plains Indians, it became clear that he was in fact one of the most important individuals in the corps. We do not know his dimensions, but evidently he was a very large man. The Indians had never seen anybody like York before.
“Many Came to view us all day,” Clark wrote in his journal on October 9, 1804. “Much astonished at my black Servent, who did not lose the opportunity of [displaying] his powers Strength &c. &c.
“This nation never Saw a black man before.”
The astonishment of the Indians did not fade quickly. “All flocked around him & examind him from top to toe,” Clark wrote on October 10. “He Carried on the joke and made himself more turribal than we wished him to doe.” Another member of the party, Sergeant John Ordway, observed that York was “the Greatest Curiousity” to the Indians. “The children would follow after him, & if he turned towards them they would run from him & hollow as if they were terrefied, & afraid of him.”
Soon, however, the Indians’ surprise turned to outright admiration. “Those people are much pleased with my black Servent,” Clark wrote. “Their womin verry fond of caressing our men &c.” Everybody was having a good time, and York was by no means excluded.
Up the Missouri at Fort Mandan, York encountered his first piece of bad luck. Reporting that several of his men had suffered frostbite in the bitter cold, Clark noted: “my Servents feet also frosted & his P__s a little.”
York had recovered fully by the start of the new year, and for the Indians at the Mandan village he displayed more of his skills. “I ordered my black Servent to Dance,” wrote Clark, “which amused the Crowd Verry much, and Somewhat astonished them, that so large a man should be active &c. &c.”
Leaving the somewhat astonished Indians in the spring, the Corps of Discovery moved on to the mountains, where they tried to lure a group of reluctant natives across the Continental Divide to provide horses. Here York really came into his own, for when the Indians agreed to journey to the white man’s camp, “… they seemed quite as anxious to see this monster,” Clark recorded, “as they wer the merchandize which we had to barter for their horses.”
Nicholas Biddle, who prepared the first narrative of the expedition, cast further light on York’s unique role with the party. Interviewing Clark in 1810, he heard about one Indian who “shut him [York] up with his wife,” and about a chief of the Minnetarees, who was at first convinced that York was a painted white man. He spat on his finger, rubbed York’s skin, and became a true believer. “Those who had seen neither,” Biddle added significantly, “made no difference between white & black.”
In a sense, York had made a true believer out of Clark, for the master was forced to realize that his slave had valuable characteristics that before had gone unappreciated. Black, it turned out, was beautiful. It is to Clark’s credit that he recognized York’s new position in the party: the lackey who had started out fetching greens for supper wound up as a principal on trading forays with a white lad from Kentucky as his partner. And after the expedition got back to St. Louis in 1806, Clark gave York his freedom.