York (1770 – before 1832) was an African-American explorer best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Enslaved by William Clark's father and passed down through a will to William Clark, he performed hard manual labor without pay, but participated as a full member of the expedition. Like many other expedition members, his ultimate fate is unclear. There is evidence that after the expedition's return, Clark had difficulty compelling York to resume his former status, and York may have later escaped or been freed, but nothing is entirely clear on this.
York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He, his father, his mother (Rose) and younger sister and brother (Nancy and Juba), were enslaved by the Clark family. York was William Clark's slave from boyhood, and was left to William in his father's will. He had a fiance whom he rarely saw, and likely lost contact with her after 1811 when she was sold/sent to Mississippi. It is not known if York fathered any children.
Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable. After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. According to one account discussed below, Clark eventually gave him his freedom.
It is shown that York had gained a little freedom while on the expedition with Lewis and Clark. It is mentioned in journals that York went on scouting trips and going to trade with villages, experiencing freedom while doing that. Clark named two geographic discoveries after him; York's Eight Islands and York's Dry Creek, indicating that Clark may have respected him as an equal. When a poll was taken to decide where the group should stay over one winter, York's vote was recorded. He was also able to swim, unlike some of the men who were with them on their expedition.
As to York's later life and death, semi-contemporaries Washington Irving and Zenas Leonard give contradictory accounts. When Irving interviewed Clark in 1832, Clark claimed to have freed York, but that York regretted being free because he was a failure at business, and died trying to get back to serve his master as a slave again in St. Louis. Some contemporary historians doubt the accuracy of Clark's story, for it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people. Others hold out the possibility that, as Clark's childhood playmate and long-time companion, the two men possessed a measure of friendship and mutual respect that was atypical for the time. However, manumission laws and practices of the era often required freed slaves to leave the area, and their family and friends.
Betts and Áhati N. N. Touré suggest that York simply refused to return to Clark, and escaped to freedom. Leonard reported meeting with an African man living among the Crows in north-central Wyoming in 1834, writing:
In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark – with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since - which is about ten or twelve years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose (sic?) to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately.
York had experienced freedom on his adventures with Lewis and Clark. He was part of the team, and he contributed just like the rest with hunting, fishing, putting up tents etc. He had crossed rivers and mountains on the expedition and had a taste of what true freedom is like. On the expedition he felt like a free man, and then when he returned east he was a slave again, in a world where there was slavery and bondage.
According to yet another source, York continued to work for Clark as a slave after the expedition. York asked for his freedom and at first Clark refused but did send him to Kentucky so he could be closer to his wife. Ten years after the expedition Clark granted York his freedom and York worked in the freighting business in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1832, York died from cholera.