Clark writes concerning the Arikaras first contact with a black man, “The Indians were much astonished at my Servent, They never saw a black man before, all flocked around him & examined him from top to toe, he Carried on the joke and made himself more turribal than we wished him to doe.” Clark further records concerning the Arikaras’ assessment of York, “something strange & from his very large size more vicious than whites.” James P.Ronda states in his book, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, that among these tribes, York began to enjoy a new status: “York thoroughly enjoyed his newfound celebrity status and had already ‘made himself more turribal’ than the captains wished.
Although York becomes an integral member of the Corps of Discovery, exercising freedoms and privilege not generaly enjoyed by slaves, he was never compensated with property or pay, as were the other “free” members of the expedition.
Little is known about York, with few exceptions, most that is revealed comes from the corps’ journals and correspondence by Clark. Family records indicate that he was the son of slaves, Rose and “old” York, who were owned by the Clark family.
York’s Story York, a black slave of William Clark, is one of the most remarkable yet mysterious characters of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
During the expedition York obtained levels of freedom and notoriety experienced by few slaves.
As noted from the journals an Arikara man invited York to his lodge to have sex with his wife, guarding the door until the “affair was finished.” York enjoyed the same fascination and privilege among the Mandans and Hidatsas as he did with the Arikaras.
As Lewis and Clark were entertaining local Mandan chiefs by having them tour the keelboat, the dignitaries promptly pronounced the boat laden with its cargo of goods, as well as York to be “big medicine.” Among the Hidatsas, Chief Le Borgne notices York; hearing of York’s blackness from his warriors, thinking to be paint he spit into his own hand and vigorously rubbed York’s skin.
His description in contemporary writings, expedition journals, and letters range from “slave/servant” to a man of spiritual force possessing “big medicine.” As an individual York had a good sense of humor, established himself as a passionate caregiver, and demonstrated excehent frontier skills in hunting and scouting.
Physically, Ambrose describes York as a large, very strong, agile, and athletic individual of very dark complexion.
As the Corps of Discovery proceeds on its mission of exploration York evolves into a valuable and trusted member of the corps. The journals indicate an individual given assignments, responsibilities, and freedoms not nonnahy associated with a .slave, but to those accorded to an equal within the ranks of the corps.
York’s size and blackness brought both benefit and trouble to the expedition.