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The term”servant” is significant, meaning that York was a “body servant” of Clark, “a term that signified the assignment of a young slave to his equally young master for companionship.”(2) During the yearly years York would have been a playmate to Clark.Clark told William Clark Kennerly that during his Youth of tramping the woods searching for game, fishing, and riding about the countryside, he was “always accompanied by his little Negro boy.
“(3) Although York’s exact birth date is not known, it can be ascertained that he was born in Virginia about 1770 and was roughly the same age as Clark, thirty-four at the start of the expedition.
Of the original corps, York was the only married member.
William Clark inherited York when his Father died in 1799.
As with most chhdren of slaves he has no “family” name, records, manifests, and other documents of the expedition always refer to him as just, “York.” Clark’s journals refer to York as his “servant.” As in the earliest mentioning of York in his journal on 5 June 1804, Clark writes, “…here my Servant York Swam to the Sand bar to geather Greens for our Dinner, and returned with a Sufficent quantity whd Creases or Tung grass…”(1).
“When York removed the handkerchief from his head and showed Le Borgne his hair, the chief was astonished and promptly declared that the black man ‘was of a different species from the whites.”(7) Lewis and Clark would on many occasions throughout their trek use the Indian’s curiosity of York as a diversion for continuing negotiations. As patience was wearing thin for Lewis and Clark as they negotiated for horses and information for the final assault to the Pacific they displayed York, knowing he would make a good show.
(8) Lewis explains, “We have learnt by experience that to keep the savages in good humor their attention should not be wearied by too much business.
Among the Great Plains Indians, especially the Arikaras, Mandans, and the Hidatsas, York was a curiosity, fascinating and at times frightening, possessing special spiritual powers.
Among the Arikaras York became the center of attraction, being both attracted and terrified by his size and blackness.
Yet, in the end, his experiences were fleeting, no lasting greatness gained.
Although eventually freed, he died a poor and miserable man.