Monday, February 18, 2019

Lewis and Clark (and York)

When I was a kid I was in a lot of school musicals.  I still remember some of the songs.  I remember being one of four kids in a nativity musical and singing a song called "If I Were a King."  (I was raised Catholic.)  I tried to look up some of the musicals so I could reference them in this blog post, but as someone born in the 1980s, I couldn't find many of them.  The suggestions for middle schoolers nowadays include a Shrek musical, which is way past my time, and I can only Google middle school plays for so long before I start to worry that I'm on some sort of list.

If you'd like to be on a list, too, then check this out!  This is a video of some random middle schoolers singing the opening song from "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."

This is a play I remember performing in, and I was able to remember some of the songs, too.  ("Oh my name's Napoleon Bonaparte / And have I got a deal for you. / I'm in danger of being blown apart / So I make this appeal to you!")  (God, these Shrek kids of today are missing out...)

As I mentioned, I was born in the 1980s, when we learned a version of history that often left out important people.  For example, I don't really recall either York or Sacajawea in "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."  Then again, I was probably like ten years old.  I remember there was a dog.  Maybe the dog was supposed to be Sacajawea.

Pow-wow?  More like bow-wow.

Okay, I went and looked it up, because I have no memory of York or Sacajawea in this play, only Lewis, Clark, and a talking dog.  I'm probably on some more lists now.  Turns out, Sacajawea was in the play.  Also, the dog's name in the play is Scannon, a hilarious historical error.  (The dog's real name was Seaman.)  The dog has its own song in the musical, called "It's Ruff," which is more than we can say for York, although I was glad that York was mentioned at all.

You've probably heard of Sacajawea, but who the hell is this York guy I keep mentioning?  I'll let the musical, The Adventures of Lewis and Clark, explain.  This is actual dialogue from the Lewis and Clark play, glossing over York's slavery using the dog:

YORK: I’m certain that I am the slave who made the trip. They call me York.
SCANNON: Ruff! Ruff! I am the dog, Scannon. Could you tell?
ALL: Yep! He’s the dog all right! No doubt about it!

This post is about York, the second Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition that history forgets.  Sacajawea got her own $1 coin but York got nothing.  Hell, the dog got more statues than York did; Wikipedia mentions at least 14 statues for the dog and only 4 for York.

Not pictured: York.

York (named most commonly "York William Clark," though it should be noted that this was only because William Clark was the man who owned him) was born in 1770 in Virginia, on a modest plantation called Mulberry Hill, one of several estates held by the Clark family.  He was born the same year as William Clark and the two grew up side-by-side, as playmates, except one was a goddamn slave and the other was William Clark.

When Clark's father died, he willed York to William.  They were 14 at the time.  Following Clark's death, the family moved to Kentucky; despite being an able-bodied man, York was trained not as a laborer, but as William Clark's personal manservant.  And when President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to explore his newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, Lewis appointed Clark as second-in-command, and Clark dragged York along.  ("Is it cool if I bring my dog?"  "Sure, I'm bringing my slave, so why not?")

Their party was described as being made up of "nine young men" from Kentucky who were old army buddies, what Jefferson called the "Corps of Discovery."  The actual Corps included a total of about thirty people but it failed to include many of the civilian guides and volunteers.  And by volunteers, I mean the wives, slaves, and other disenfranchised people who agreed to go on the trip.

And Lewis's dog.  Can't forget the dog.
Look at him, sharing his spotlight with Sacajewea.
Good boy! 

The Lewis and Clark expedition began in 1804, when York was about 34 years old.  Records indicate he was married, but his wife was left behind in Louisville. Clark's journals mention him frequently, calling him a "servant." A roster from Camp Dubois in the spring of that year lists "2 of us & york," as sharing one tent, indicating that Lewis, Clark, and York operated as one unit in terms of sleeping and boat arrangements within the Corps.

As the only Black member of the party, he faced a degree of racial discrimination, including an incident within the first month where one of the men threw sand at York, which according to Clark’s journal, resulted in him “nearly loseing [sic] an eye.”  (Note: Clark had been homeschooled and his spelling was atrocious.  He famously spelled "Sioux" twenty-six different ways in his own writings.)

But as the trip progressed, York became an invaluable member of the team.  He helped with all of the various tasks, including the preparation of the captains' food, putting up the captains' tents, and being involved with scouting and hunting trips.  (From Clark's journal: “Derected My Servent York with me to kill a Buffalow.”)  That last item is fairly significant, since in his home state, York, as a slave, would have been prohibited from using firearms.  On the expedition he experienced a remarkable degree of freedom.

Clark's journals reveal that York knew how to swim (unlike many of the corpsmen, and especially unusual for a Black man of that time period), enjoyed messing with the Indians (York was a practical joker and told several tribes he was a tame bear who ate children), and was allowed to ride on horseback.  He was famously caring of the other members of the party when they got ill, staying by Sergeant Floyd's side when he died of appendicitis.  (Floyd was the only member of the party to actually die during the entire two and a half year expedition.)  He seemed to care deeply for others; during a flash flood in Missouri, he was separated from Clark, and Clark wrote of the incident: "I found my servent in serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar.”

Working alongside the other members of the party, he soon began to enjoy the same sort of privileges that they did, including having several locations named after him (a tributary named York's Dry Creek and the York 8 Islands), and being given a vote of where to spend the winter in 1805-1806.  (A record of the vote shows that only the men of the Corps were given a vote, with two exceptions: York and Sacajawea.)

His relations with the various Native tribes was mixed.

Lewis wrote of Sacajewea's tribe: “[T]o the Indians, every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them. the black man york and the sagacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration.”

 That fucking dog, man.
Note how York and Seaman are posed in this statue...

The Arikara, Mandans, and Hidatsas all seemed to like York, saying he had "big medicine."  (York was famously skilled in cooking and field medicine.)  Apocryphal tales abound of York sleeping with many Native women with the blessings of their husbands, although there is no historical evidence for this and the tales of a Native man having a cuckold fetish with a Black man really feels like it might just be titillating gossip.  (Clark's journal never mentions any of York's sexual exploits.)

It's worth noting, though, that York was generally not "respected" so much as he was "entertaining."  Clark asked him to dance for the Natives, and allowed them to rub sand on him in an attempt to "rub off" the black.  Not all tribes viewed York favorably; the Nez Pearce found him to be threatening, his dark skin reminiscent of war paint to them.

In any case, York's presence seemed to be more useful than detrimental, and the expedition was considered an overwhelming success despite all of the STDs and mercury poisoning.  They returned to St. Louis in September of 1806 after two and a half years exploring, and one publication wrote, "Even the negro York, who was the body servant of Clark, despite his ebony complexion, was looked upon with decided partiality, and received his share of adulation."

 A statue of York in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
He was renowned for his hunting skills.

After nearly three years of living with more rights than he'd ever known, York found it hard to re-adjust to life as Clark's manservant.  He requested his freedom for "services rendered."  (The other men on the expedition received a hefty cash bonus and 230 acres of land for their trouble.)  Clark refused.  Two years after the expedition, Clark had moved to St. Louis to continue work as the "chief Indian agent" for the Upper Louisiana Territory, but York's wife was in Kentucky, and he hadn't seen her in years. Clark wrote, "If any attempt is made by york to run off, or refuse to provorm his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleans and Sold, or hired out to Some Severe master untill he thinks better of Such Conduct."  Another letter states, "York is insolent and Sulky, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended Sence."

 Nothing like a Severe trouncing to increase morale!

After years of tension between the two, Clark hired York out to a cruel man named Young as a day laborer.  York is not mentioned his any of Clark's writings after 1809; his nephew mentions him in an 1811 letter, saying that his contract work expired but that he could re-negotiate it.  During this period, York's wife's family moved to Mississippi, and presumably, they never saw each other again.

The next time history speaks of York is in 1832.  According to Clark, sometime around 1815 or 1816, more than a decade after the expedition, Clark freed York, giving him with six horses and a wagon to operate a freight service between Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Kentucky.  However, York's business did not perform well.  Two of the horses died and the others all got sick, possibly poisoned.  York was a freed Black man living in the south, his family and friends estranged, his heyday over.  By many accounts he became a heavy drinker, eventually succumbing to cholera and dying sometime between 1825 and 1832.

No pictures exist of York; the statues of him are pure conjecture.  My personal favorite is the one above, a bronze statue on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.  Shown, as usual, with his rifle and a fresh kill, this statue is among the least detailed, choosing not to focus on York's face, but instead on his back.

Lash marks inscribe one of William Clark's maps of the Louisiana Territory that York helped explore during the course of an 8,000 mile, two-and-a-half year journey.  Lewis and Clark were hailed as heroes and years later would get commemorative stamps, coins, and middle school musicals.  And York?  York has less statues than the dog.

In 2001, York was post-humously granted the rank of honorary sergeant in the Corps of Discovery by President Clinton.  A small gesture, but a necessary one.  York may never get as much credit as he's due, but this, at least, is a start.

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