Lewis and Clark in Kentucky – York

Historical Marker #2119 in Louisville notes the historical significance of York, William Clark’s slave, who was an active participant in the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Northwest.

One of many sad realities of slavery is that biographical details about enslaved individuals are often difficult to determine. A lack of recorded information leaves holes in historical accounts that cannot often be filled. Such is the case with York, an enslaved man who belonged to noted adventurer William Clark for much of his life. York’s birth and death dates are not positively known. Historians believe that he was born between 1770 and 1775 in Caroline County, Virginia, on the Clarks’ family plantation. York moved to Kentucky with the Clarks in 1785. They settled in Jefferson County on a plantation called Mulberry Hill.

It is known, however, that York traveled with his owner and Clark’s co-leader, Meriwether Lewis, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery, on their famous expedition to the Pacific Northwest. York proved to be an invaluable asset to the expedition’s success. His ability to negotiate with the Native American tribes that the party constantly encountered was one of his most helpful skills. York was often revered by the Indians due to his complexion, as many Native Americans had never before seen a black man. Some of the tribes the party met thought York possessed special powers.

When Clark moved to St. Louis in 1806, York preferred to remain in Louisville with his wife, who belonged to a different owner. Clark initially brought York with him, but York’s displeasure of being separated prompted Clark to let the man return to Louisville. York worked a number of different jobs in Louisville for the Clark family and was likely rented out on occasion. Sometime between 1815 and 1832, Clark freed York. York’s death date and location is not positively known. Some suggest that he died of cholera in Tennessee, while others suggest he returned to the West to live with Native Americans.

Although few details are known about periods of York’s life, it is certain that this enslaved man helped make the Lewis and Clark expedition a success.