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Image of York.
This part of a famous portrait by Charles Russell, entitled Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones, shows Russell's rendering of what York, Clark's slave, might have looked like. York was considered a novelty by the various Indians along the journey, who had never met a black man.

Perhaps no member of the Corps of Discovery drew more curiosity than York, William Clark's slave. Given that this "military" expedition included a young Indian woman, her baby, Virginia farmers and frontiersmen, French-Canadian fur trappers, a dog, and other assorted types, this was no small task.

Then again, York was no small man. He was said to be very large and strong too, striking with his dark skin and kinky hair. Clark had inherited him as a young man from his father. York had been Clark's lifelong companion and was a natural choice to accompany Clark on the expedition.

Though he shared in all the duties that the enlisted men did, York often was paraded among the Indians as an object of curiosity. Quite simply, most Indians the Corps 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 Servent, who did not lose the opportunity of displaying his powers Strenght. this nation never Saw a black man before." The same happened the next day in the Arikara village: "Those Indians wer much astonished at my servant, they never Saw a black man before, all flocked around him & examind him from top to toe."

Lewis even was able to stall the Shoshones while awaiting Clark to arrive from a separate exploration by promising the Indians the opportunity to see York. The Shoshones were quite eager at this possibility.

York often wowed the Indians with his dancing. During the winter at Fort Mandan, Clark wrote, "I ordered my black Servent to Dance which amused the Croud Verry much, and somewhat astonished them, that So large a man should be active." York was said to have enjoyed the attention.

On the other hand, the captains gave York rights few slaves could envision. For instance, they allowed him to carry a weapon. Most notably, when the Corps reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, the captains allowed York to vote on a location to establish their winter camp.

Of course, no matter what happened on the expedition, York was still a slave. When Lewis in his appropriation request to Congress listed the members of the Corps who had been to the Pacific and back, he excluded York. After the expedition York asked Clark for his freedom as payment for his services on the trip. Clark refused, lamenting that because York "has got Such a notion about freedom and emence Services [on the expedition], that I do not expect he will be of much Service to me again."

York had a wife in Louisville that he wanted to be with instead of in St. Louis with Clark. In May 1809 Clark wrote that York was "insolent and sukly, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended."

Clark eventually freed York, giving him a wagon and six horses to start a freight business between Nashville and Richmond, KY. He became a heavy drinker, entertaining companions with stories about his adventures with the expedition—stories that reportedly became taller with each telling. He died of cholera sometime between 1822 and 1832 somewhere in Tennessee, according to Clark's letters, and is likely buried in an unmarked grave.

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