York of the Corps of Discovery: Interpretations of York's Character and His Role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Millner, Darell M. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

York of the Corps of Discovery: Interpretations of York's Character and His Role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition


Millner, Darell M., Oregon Historical Quarterly


In 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark assembled a diverse company to accomplish a task set for them by President Thomas Jefferson and authorized by Congress--to travel from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Coast, crossing outside the borders of the United States to describe an unfamiliar landscape, to find a viable commercial route across the continent, and to establish relations with unknown Native peoples. Joining the two captains and the soldiers they had recruited for the expedition was York, Clark's black slave. By winter, the Corps of Discovery had been joined by a French Canadian, Toussaint Charbonneau, who would serve as an interpreter, and a young Indian woman called Sacagawea. The western frontier has always been notable for its interracial and intercultural complexity, and the Corps of Discovery reflected that reality. The diversity of the Corps, according to historian James P. Ronda, is one of the reasons the expedition has such appeal for modern Americans. "[I]t's not just a white man's army," Ronda writes, "but rather a group of people from many different racial, ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds.... This is a crazy quilt that was and is America." (1)

One of the most interesting and useful stories to emerge about the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition is that of York, who participated fully in the journey and contributed in significant ways to its success. Because race has played such a complex and powerful part in American history, York's story can take us beyond the particulars of the expedition to an exploration of the racial realities and dynamics of American life. It is also useful to examine how York is portrayed in the scholarly and popular writing that has been published in the two hundred years since 1805-1806. Those images and characterizations offer insight into the racial preoccupations of individual scholars and writers and the nation's collective obsession with race.

THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION was not the first overland journey across the North American continent. As early as the 1530s, four Spanish conquistadors, the last survivors of a failed expedition to conquer Florida in 1528, traveled across the continent from Florida to Mexico on a route that transversed the present-day American Southwest. (2) In 1792, over a dozen years before Lewis and Clark journeyed west, fur-trader Alexander McKenzie led a party of approximately ten adventurers across Canada to the Pacific Ocean. (3) And Lewis and Clark's journey did not represent the first time a significant American presence had been established in the Oregon Country. That distinction more properly falls to Captain Robert Gray, who led sailing expeditions to present-day Oregon in 1788 and 1792. (4) On his 1792 voyage, Gray is credited with being the first non-Native to enter the major river of the Pacific Northwest, which he named Columbia after his ship. There were undoubtedly other white explorers who traveled through the far west of the North American continent before 1805 whom we will never know anything about. (5)

If Lewis and Clark do not have the distinction of being first, what, then, was the significance of the expedition and what makes it different from the explorations that preceded it? Part of the difference is in the voluminous record the two captains kept of their activities and observations. It is the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition--along with the field notes, maps, collections of specimens, and other documents of the journey--that are the most remarkable and lasting product of that experience. And it is through the journals that we find the clearest and best-marked path to an understanding of York. As we re-examine the York of the journals, however, it is necessary to clear up some long-standing misconceptions.

As a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, York was the first documented black American slave to travel across the continent. Each qualifying adjective is necessary. …

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