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YORK?? - Questions
In Response To: YORK ()



By Allen Lee

Copyright 2005. Allen Lee. Posted by permission.


Many of you may know that I recently moved from Southern California to the Portland, Oregon area and you may also know that this year Oregon will celebrate the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition's arrival to the Pacific Ocean. I've made a few visits to some of the landmarks, both on the Washington and Oregon side of the Columbia River, trying to visualize the scene two hundred years ago. It's been an unusually sunny winter and spring so the scenery has been outstanding. Views of Mt. Hood and the erupting Mt. St. Helens are local events and Mt. St. Helens is one of the many drastically changed landmarks that York wouldn't recognize today.

A PBS article posted on the Website, "Afrigeneas" contains the following statement: "York is virtually unknown to almost all blacks and whites alike..." This PBS article recognizes how little information can be obtained about York from the expedition journals. York supposedly left no written statements so I propose in this year of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial that we seek to learn more of York through new ways. I have begun a list of suggestions and questions that I hope will engage other readers and researchers into discussion. They are as follows:

Question 1: What did York look like?

Several artists have used their vocational license in an attempt to portray York; the most recent is an excellent sculpture by internationally renowned artist Ed Hamilton, whose eight-foot bronze art piece of York now stands in Louisville, Kentucky. "I wanted to see him as the Indians did," Hamilton says. "They accepted him for his own ability and strength, not the servant. I studied pictures of slaves, especially those with more African features as he was probably only one generation away from the continent.Ē

Ed Hamilton opens the door for my first suggestion, forensic reconstruction. Even though we may never find his remains scientist have used models of similar people from similar time frames to get an idea of what a person or object may have looked like. Itís been done on two-thousands-year-old remains found in Israel in order to get a better idea of what Jesus may have looked like, and the most recent reconstruction is that of a Neanderthal skeleton completed with parts from different skeletons. There is also an African DNA project, which tries to link African Americans to their African relatives. I say trace Yorkís ancestry back to the Virginia plantation where is mother, Rose and father, also named York lived and put science to work for a likeness.

Question 2: What were the circumstances of York's marriage?

York had a slave wife but did he father children with her and more importantly who was she? Are there any descendents of that marriage who can bring oral histories and are their any descendents of alleged liaisons with Indians along the expedition that can bring oral histories? Was she sent "downriver" to Mississippi as an act of malice against York or was it just a relocation of her master?

Question 3: Where are his artifacts?

York was reported to have sent Buffalo robes back to his wife from the expedition, where are they? If he was a freight hauler during his brief freedom there should be hardware from the operation, wagon parts, livestock fittings, tools, and freight papers. What about the gun he was allowed to use on the journey or finding the places he lived both as a slave with Clark and as a free man?

Question 4: Who were his real friends, enemies, and acquaintances?

For this question I use the following excerpt: ďClark 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 expeditionóstories 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.Ē

Even if York didnít write he supposedly did a lot of talking. There may be family stories from people rooted in 19th century Kentucky or Tennessee who may be able to bring forward words spoken by York, something the Lewis and Clark journals donít do. Who hired him while he was free and who avoided him? Was he a victim of violence or alcohol or perhaps a combination of both rather than Cholera? This leads to the final question

Question 5: Where did he really die?

There is an ironic coincidence with the final days of York and the final days of another notable Black Western adventurer, that being mountain man James Beckwourth. Both are conversely reported to either be buried in an unmarked grave or went off to die with the Crow Indians. Additionally both are reported to have in life been liars about what they did. If I find one more Black Western character with the same story Iím going to go from coincidence to conspiracy. I think itís time ethnographers have serious discussion with the Crow, (who by the way call themselves the Absaroke, or Sparrow hawk people, not Crow) and perhaps find out who was really there.

If York died in Kentucky or Tennessee an unmarked grave might be hard to find but not impossible, but even if the grave isnít found, finding the actual location of his death would reveal more information and likely possibilities.

There is at least one example of misrepresented information about York that I'd like to address in closing, and that information being that York is heralded as the first Black man allowed to vote in the U.S. and I say, So What! Oregon was not a decided territory of the U.S, on November 24, 1805 when a vote was taken on where they would spend the winter at Station Camp near the mouth of the Columbia River. The Northwest territorial dispute between the U.S and Britain led to the War of 1812. Neither Lewis nor Clark were members of Congress and President Thomas Jefferson never gave any directive to extend liberties to York, before, during, or after the expedition. York was a slave, a therefore not a citizen of the U.S. and the fact that he was a slave disqualified him from military status. An added note from an article by Dayton Duncan reminds us that, "As military captains they simply could have issued an order." All that happened was a temporary liberty granted by a master to a slave. Dr. Sterling Stuckey discusses public slave self-rule elections in New England as early as the 1750ís and continuing for a century. My opinion is that no great leap for African-Americans or democracy was made by York's vote. (Sterling Stuckey,
1987, Slave Culture, Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, Oxford University Press, New York.)

Itís likely there will be a lot of seminars and lectures about Lewis and Clark in the upcoming months, I encourage all who may attend to ask new questions and engage in new discussions when asking about York, itís time to know more.

Thanks for reading,

Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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