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York : Statue

The text for the bronze tablets accompanying the York statue is taken from this biographical profile by James J. Holmberg.

YORK

Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806) to the Pacific Ocean.

York (ca. 1772 - before 1832) was the first African American to cross the United States from coast to coast and the North American continent north of Mexico.

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. He decided York would also go. York possessed many of the same skills as these recruits.

On October 14, 1803, Lewis and Clark met in Louisville, forming one of the most famous partnerships in history. The first nine permanent members of the Corps were enlisted at the Falls of the Ohio. This nucleus of the Corps became known as the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky." On October 26, Captains Lewis and Clark, the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky," and York - that all important foundation of the Corps of Discovery upon which the future success of the expedition was built - pushed off from Clarksville down the Ohio.

Although never an official member of the Corps, York was a contributing member of the expedition from its beginning. Participating in its work, dangers, and hardships, he acquired a degree of equality and freedom he had never before experienced as a slave. When American Indians were encountered who had never seen a black man before, York's skin - the very thing that marked him as inferior and a slave in white society of that day - marked him as someone who was special and spiritually powerful and even superior to his white companions. In addition to his skin color, Indians 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.

York's important contribution to the expedition is chronicled in the expedition journals. The level of equality and respect he earned is demonstrated by him getting to voice his opinion on where the Corps should establish its 1805-1806 winter quarters.

Upon the Corps' return, York was expected to return to his old life. York was a slave and expected to act as such. The taste of equality, superiority, and even freedom he had enjoyed on the expedition had changed him. He could not forget what he had seen, experienced, and accomplished. When Clark moved to St. Louis in 1808 and took York with him, York was separated from his wife. He asked to be allowed to stay in Louisville. When Clark refused York let his unhappiness be known. The relationship of these life-long companions - albeit master and slave - ruptured at this point. York stated his belief that he deserved his freedom. Clark disagreed. After the summer of 1809 the two men were rarely together again. York was hired out in Louisville to different men - some of whom mistreated him.

Eventually, William Clark granted York the freedom he believed he deserved, 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 other ending - reported by Clark and with the known documentary evidence supporting it - has York being given his freedom, being set up in a freight hauling business by Clark, losing the business, regretting ever getting his freedom, and dying in Tennessee sometime before 1832, a miserable, 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.


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