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HISTORY & PREHISTORY

York

Figure of York

York, Captain William Clark’s black servant, who accompanied him on the Corps of Discovery, has the distinction of being the first black man to cross the Continental Divide and the first African American to travel over land to the Pacific Ocean.

While York may have been a slave, he was nevertheless a significant and valuable member of the Corps of Discovery. He’s mentioned often in Lewis and Clark’s journals, which indicate his duties were much the same as the other Corps members—hunting (which was not allowed by slaves at the time), cooking, and hauling the canoes and keelboat up the Missouri. He was not, as many would assume, dedicated to attending to Clark’s needs.

York was of particular interest to the Indians the Corps encountered on their journey. They called him “Big Medicine” and were eager to touch his black skin and feel his coarse hair. At a very young age, York had been given as a slave to Clark by his father. Growing up together, the two became inseparable companions. Clark’s respect and fondness for York is evident in his journals.

Between present-day Townsend and Three Forks in Montana are a series of eight islands in the Missouri River, which Clark named after York.

After the expedition was over, York asked Clark for his freedom so that he could be nearer his wife. Initially, Clark said no, but York was persistent, and by 1809 he was sent to be with his wife and later granted his freedom. He is believed to have died of cholera sometime before 1832.

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