Bronze statue of York in Louisville, Kentucky [a]

Witness Post: York

Many whites are scrubbing their histories these days (2020) to remove any blemishes of slavery from their pasts. Our family, with many generations in the US, is enmeshed in accusations of slavery, and it was time to look back at one family ancestor and see what secrets might lie under the covers. That ancestor is Meriwether Lewis.

There is no pleasure in exposing a famous ancestor with a mental health problem, who apparently died by suicide. Yet, it’s time to pull out the spotlight and shine it on this revered Explorer.[1]

Meriwether Lewis grew up in Albemarle County, Virginia, and spent many years in Georgia after his father died. The Meriwether family (his mother’s side) and the Lewis’s (his father’s side) were all tobacco farmers and unapologetic slave holders.

With the history of mistreatment, displacement, sequestering and murders of Native Americans and African Americans at the hands of whites, there are good reasons to center this piece on all non-white participants in the Lewis & Clark Expeditions. However, with the deaths of George Floyd and Louisville native, Breonna Taylor, it is fitting to center this Witness Post on York.


Twenty years ago, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, I believed that the Black slave on the Lewis & Clark Expedition, named simply York, was a slave owned by Meriwether Lewis. I was mistaken. Instead, York, a 6-foot, 200-pound Black slave was owned by Col. William Clark.



Born in 1770, York was believed to be the son of “Old York” and his wife, Rose. The trio were the enslaved laborers owned by William Clark’s father, John. York was pledged and gifted to his son, William, to serve as his “man servant.” William also became the owner of Old York, Rose and their two children: Nancy and Juba. Three other slaves were included in the same gift: Tame, Cupid and Harry. The Colonel was their master at his home in Kentucky. Like all enslaved individuals at the time, the owners feared insurrection and did not allow slaves to own firearms in Kentucky.

York was not hand-picked for the Expedition because of any valor or bravery in the Whiskey Rebellion or Revolutionary War, as were the whites. York came to the Expedition as 35 year-old chattel; otherwise, he would not have been invited or welcomed. York, like Meriwether Lewis’ dog, Seaman, was considered owned property. The other Clark slaves stayed on the farm in Kentucky.


Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman, by Laurie Myers

Despite the arms restrictions in Kentucky, York was a well-rounded outdoorsman. Clark wanted York by his side at all times. Conditions changed, when they left their home state.

Once on the Expedition, Clark permitted York to carry a rifle. On a regular basis, York was expected to shoot buffalo, deer, ducks and geese, and catch fish to feed the Explorers. York was also a skillful boatman and trail guide, so he helped navigate the waterways and followed the deer paths to catch wild game. [2]


York, Proud Hunter, © Michael Haynes

Not everyone on the Expedition was pleased to have a Black man on the trip. Most of the white crew members were raised in the antebellum south, where Blacks were slaves, penned in warrens and restricted to work in the manor house or on the land. A month into the journey, one of the men threw sand and stones in York’s face. Clark reported in his journal that York nearly lost an eye from the assault.

One point of note is that unlike the whites on the Expedition, the Native tribes were mesmerized by York. These tribes, including the Nez Perce, Mandan, Blackfeet, Chinook and Shoshone, among others, had seen a handful of white men over the years, mostly Russian trappers and seamen, who passed through the territory. But they had never seen a Black man. They were myth.


Statue (L-R) of York (notice his kneeling position), Seaman, Clark & Lewis in Great Falls, Montana

Seizing on the mythology of the Native belief systems, Clark was an opportunistic slave owner. He encouraged the tribes to closely examine York. At night-time gatherings, Clark became a tantalizing carnival huckster, urging York to remove his shirt and instill fear and fascination in the Native tribes. He held York out as a novelty “performer,” masquerading as either a frightening monster or a harmless, dancing buffoon.


The Nez Perce called York “Raven’s Son,” because of his skin color and they took a wide berth around the Corps, because of their belief that York might put a spell or curse on them. At one point, the Shoshone refused to negotiate with Meriwether Lewis, unless they were permitted to visually inspect and touch York. Not believing his skin color was real, the Shoshone tried to “rub the black off” with course sand. They stopped rubbing when the raw spot oozed red with blood. None of the white men were poked, prodded or goaded into similar public displays or humiliations.


An interesting episode occurred when the Corps of Discovery was facing starvation. The men had resorted to eating the tallow from their candles to stave-off hunger. Clark specifically ordered York and another man to meet with the Nez Perce to barter for food. A good relationship with the Nez Perce tribe was critical to the success of the Expedition, and York proved to be one of the best ambassadors. The Native People often called York “Big Medicine.”[3]


Fort Clatsop, the winter of 1805-1806


At the turnaround point in the Expedition, in the winter of 1805, the members of the Corps of Discovery were asked to help vote for the location of their proposed construction of Fort Clatsop, near the delta of the Columbia River with the Pacific. They needed shelter to hunker down, while they were hunting deer and elk, boiling seawater for salt (to cure the fish and meat), and mending moccasins for the return trip.

The Corps members were rain-weary, bug-bitten and miserable. The Captains held another vote and asked each explorer whether to wait-out the winter or head back to St. Louis. Sacagawea, the female Shoshone guide and interpreter, and York, both non-whites, were given an equal vote on the decision. While on the Expedition, the Captains felt they had the authority to suspend the usual order of the races. Their wilderness-democracy allowed for shared power and rare racial equality, at least temporarily.


On the Corps of Discovery, everyone had a vote.

Slave or Free

When these explorers returned to St. Louis and “civilization,” however, things returned to “normal” and the old world order was reinstalled. The white men returned to their homes and families in the East and they were feted as heroes and legends. York returned to Kentucky as Clark’s slave.[4]

York had made invaluable contributions to the Corps of Discovery, but Clark refused to set him free, even though he had pleaded for it. Also troubling was the precedent that Clark had already set by releasing another slave laborer for good behavior in 1802, one year before the Expedition.

In 1809 Clark seems to have had a change of heart. York had made several requests to be set free or removed from Clark’s home in Missouri to live near his wife and family, in Louisville, Kentucky. Clark characterized the requests as “misconduct.” In what seemed like frustration or punishment, Clark hired-out York for a year to a man named Young, who lived in Louisville. Young had a reputation for physically abusing his laborers.


The written records about York are spotty after Clark removed him as his man-servant. He “manumitted York” (freed him) a few years later. Historians have pegged the range of years of York’s freedom as 1811 – 1815.

The next written report appears about twenty years later, in 1832, when Clark spoke to Washington Irving [5]. Irving reported that Clark had freed York along with a number of other slaves many years before. Clark said he gave York some horses and a wagon, so that he could open a drayage business carrying goods back and forth from Richmond to Louisville.

Drayage - Wikipedia

Irving reported that Clark said, “[York] could not get up early enough in the morning – his horses were ill kept – two died – the others grew poor. He sold them, was cheated – entered into service – fared ill. ‘Damn this freedom,‘ said York, ‘I have never had a happy day since I got it.‘ He determined to go back to his old master [Clark] – set off for St. Louis, but was taken with the cholera in Tennessee & died.” In retrospect, the conversation with Irving seems laced with clear prejudice against York, as if he were incapable of handling freedom.


Thinking about systemic racism, it was impossible for a Black man to be truly free in the white man’s world. The entire system of slavery was established and constantly burnished to keep the African-Americans repressed and in servitude. Somehow we are led to believe that bondage to a master, like William Clark, was better than the torture and daily ridicule that York and his family had to endure in their realities of life in the 1830’s. No Black man or woman could taste real freedom, as whites knew it.

It does not seem to this writer that life has gotten much better for Blacks in America over the last 190 years. The slavery narrative persists — it is a perilous journey on the Natchez Trace.[6]

Now What?

To explore the reality of Blacks incarcerated as slaves to our ancestors is real and raw. Yet how much more painful was it for those African Americans, who were enslaved by white men and women? They were the ones  who felt denigrated and denied basic rights  in daily society. Many conversations these days start with the question, “What do you want me to know” about your experience as a Black man in America? How are you feeling today? How has it been for you lately?

The idea of listening, without interrupting, without defending “how things were,” or “what I meant to say” is critical. No matter how uncomfortable the listening becomes, it is important to hang in there. Only through that intense discomfort can we feel the pain and come through this period of zero recognition. We have to lean into these critical issues of race. Only through the pain can we reach an understanding and find a place to start over again. When can we finally recognize that all men, no matter their skin color, bleed red?

Hooper Family Connection


Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) [7]

Above is the portrait of our ancestor, Meriwether Lewis. The artist has painted his foreshortened arm and his hand on one book — presumably his famous Journals. There is an image of a river with some men on a boat in the background, again, emblematic of the Corps of Discovery and their trip to explore the vast square miles of the Louisiana Purchase.

We are related to this famous explorer through the Meriwether and Lewis families. The Hooper’s are descendants of Meriwether Lewis’s oldest sister, Jane Meriwether Lewis Anderson (1770-1845). Jane M.L. Anderson’s grand-daughter was our grandmother, Mildred Anderson Hooper.

The Meriwether Family:[8]

Nicholas Meriwether II (1665-1744). Imagine receiving land from a King who never visited or honored the land? The Meriwether family received large land grants from the King of England. Nicholas also purchased property alongside those grants. Collectively he and his family owned about 18,000 acres in New Kent, Surry and Albemarle Counties, Virginia. The grants included the estates known as “Clover Fields,” “Castle Hill,” “Belvoir,” and a 1,020 acre property simply known as “The Farm.” The Meriwethers’ owned hundreds of slaves, who built their houses, managed their farms, and picked their crops — mostly tobacco.


The Lewis Family:

Lt. William Lewis (1735-1779). Lewis grew up in prosperity, as he father owned 21,600 acres in Albemarle County, and he held an interest in 100,000 acres in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Lewis inherited the “Locust Hill” estate when his father died, and an additional 1,896 acres in Ivy Creek, along with the slaves he needed to manage these tobacco growing fields. William Lewis was the first husband of Lucy Meriwether (1752-1837). William Lewis died in 1779. Six months later Lucy married Capt. John Marks (1740-1791). Because of the Lewis family’s wealth, slaves would have worked in the house as well as field. In that era, the ‘ladies of the house,’ even in the wealthiest families, would weave, sew and repair clothing. Mistresses of plantations had to supply slaves with blankets and clothing and during the Revolutionary War when cloth could no longer be imported from England; women had looms to weave their own clothes and bedding.

Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks (1752-1837)

The Hooper Family:

William E. Hooper (1812-1888). Hooper was the son of William Hooper (1788-1863), the founder of the Hooper Mills of Baltimore. The son amassed a fortune by buying and building cotton duck (canvas) mills along the Jones Falls waterway in Baltimore. It is impossible to think about the cotton trade without the image of Black slaves picking it and loading it into Whitney’s machines for ginning, carding and selling to the market. Although Hooper was not technically “in the cotton business,” it was a key raw ingredient. Without it, he had no success. Over a short time Hooper bought the Woodberry Mill, the Washington Mill, the Meadow Mill (the modern era Londontown Maincoat factory, which marketed ‘London Fog’ brands), the Clipper Mill, and the Druid Mill. Hooper also built the Park Mill. As a result of these and other acquisitions, William E. Hooper controlled the cotton duck production, his sale loft, seine twine production, a fish and produce exchange, a commission merchants’ house, and additional sail selling agencies in and around Baltimore.


There is no doubt that the mill workers were menial labor. Whether they were “slaves” or not may be a matter of semantics. From time to time, when finances were flush, the Hooper overlords were known to underpay their workers. They were also known to overpay their mill workers with breaks, housing credits, days off and higher pay, when times were tight. It seems they were adept at buying their mill workers’ loyalty, when they needed it most.


William E. Hooper (1812-1888)



[a] Plaque for YORK in Louisville, Kentucky.

Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806) to the Pacific Ocean. York (circa 1772 – before 1832) was the first African American to cross the United States from coast to coast and the North American continent north of Mexico.

Born a slave belonging to the Clark family, York was assigned as a boy to be William Clark’s servant. He moved with the Clarks from Virginia to Jefferson County in 1785 and grew to maturity on the frontier, learning all the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness. York was an experienced traveler by horse and boat and traveled extensively in the U.S. with William Clark.

In July 1803 Clark accepted an invitation from his old army friend, Meriwether Lewis, to join him as co-commander of an exploring venture to the Pacific ordered by President Thomas Jefferson. Clark began recruiting men from the Louisville area for the Corps of Discovery. He decided York would also go. York possessed many of the same skills as these recruits.

On October 14, 1803, Lewis and Clark met in Louisville, forming one of the most famous partnerships in history. The first nine permanent members of the Corps were enlisted at the Falls of the Ohio. This nucleus of the Corps became known as the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky.” On October 26, Captains Lewis and Clark, the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky,” and York – that all important foundation of the Corps of Discovery upon which the future success of the expedition was built – pushed off from Clarksville down the Ohio.

Although never an official member of the Corps, York was a contributing member of the expedition from its beginning. Participating in its work, dangers, and hardships, he acquired a degree of equality and freedom he had never before experienced as a slave. When American Indians were encountered who had never seen a black man before, York’s skin – the very thing that marked him as inferior and a slave in white society of that day – marked him as someone who was special and spiritually powerful and even superior to his white companions. In addition to his skin color, Indians were amazed by his strength and agility. The captains used this influence that York wielded to help advance the expedition. The Indians named York “Big Medicine” to indicate his believed spiritual power and uniqueness.

York’s important contribution to the expedition is chronicled in the expedition journals. The level of equality and respect he earned is demonstrated by him getting to voice his opinion on where the Corps should establish its 1805-1806 winter quarters.

Upon the Corps’ return, York was expected to return to his old life. York was a slave and expected to act as such. The taste of equality, superiority, and even freedom he had enjoyed on the expedition had changed him. He could not forget what he had seen, experienced, and accomplished. When Clark moved to St. Louis in 1808 and took York with him, York was separated from his wife. He asked to be allowed to stay in Louisville. When Clark refused York let his unhappiness be known. The relationship of these life-long companions – albeit master and slave – ruptured at this point. York stated his belief that he deserved his freedom. Clark disagreed. After the summer of 1809 the two men were rarely together again. York was hired out in Louisville to different men – some of whom mistreated him.

Eventually, William Clark granted York the freedom he believed he deserved, but it was at least ten years after the expedition’s return. York’s ultimate fate is not definitely known. One ending has him returning to the Rocky Mountains where he lived as a respected chief among the Crow Indians. The other ending – reported by Clark and with the known documentary evidence supporting it – has York being given his freedom, being set up in a freight hauling business by Clark, losing the business, regretting ever getting his freedom, and dying in Tennessee sometime before 1832, a miserable, broken man trying to return to his former master.

Whether York returned to the West that he had explored, or was consigned to an unmarked pauper’s grave may never be known. But this is known – York made an important contribution to the greatest exploring venture in American history. Louisville is proud to honor this famous explorer . . . this famous Louisvillian . . . this famous African American . . . this famous American.

[1]  For full disclosure, Meriwether Lewis is not a direct ancestor (he had no children). Instead we are his first cousins (many times removed), i.e. decedents of his older sister, Jane Meriwether Lewis, and her husband, Edmund Anderson; therefore, we are ‘collateral relatives’ on my father’s side of the family. With first names picked as last names and middle names, and cousins inter-marrying, and lots of children in each generation, the naming game in these families gets confusing.

[2] There are many outstanding written interpretations and summaries of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. I have read many of them and find the nuance and differences among them fascinating. My personal favorite is Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, but I also like the Journals of Lewis & Clark, as edited by Bernard DeVoto, for an unadulterated version of their words. The Thomas Slaughter book, Exploring Lewis & Clark, is also a good one and I cite some references to that work later.

[3]  Sacagawea was more than just a guide to the Corps of Discovery. Her brother was the chief of the Shoshone tribe that bartered with the men for horses, and traded with them for food. When the Corps hit the westward flowing rivers, Sacagawea taught them how to harvest the camas grass and other natural shrubs and herbs to nourish the mineral-depleted men.

[4]  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/168366/exploring-lewis-and-clark-by-thomas-p-slaughter/ Thomas Slaughter’s book on Lewis and Clark is subtitled: Reflections on Men and Wilderness. Slaughter has a fascinating interpretation of the explorers and what he imagines really happened to them as they transformed to become interpreters of the land, the water, the animals, the Native American tribes, and each other.

[5] Washington Irving was famous for writing short stories and fictional tales. His works include Tales of the Alhambra (about Granada, Spain) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (about Ickabod Crain). Irving reported to the press about his conversation with William Clark about York, his Expedition servant and former slave.

[6] The irony is that Meriwether Lewis died on the Natchez Trace, a pathway to slavery for many who were escaping the depleted soil of the mid-Atlantic region. Tobacco simply stripped the land in Virginia and the Carolina’s of it’s nutrients and the slaves were sold off to other slave-hungry plantations in the greener pastures out west. The fact that both Lewis and York died in Tennessee in the same general area is part of the mystery as well. Their stories are complicated and intertwined, though William Clark was the former master, not Lewis.

The mysteries of Meriwether Lewis’s death are played out extensively in the afterlife by the fiction writer, Andra Watkins, in her book, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis.

The stories of the Natchez Trace are also a major theme in Ta’Nahisi Coates’s best seller, The Water Dancer.

[7] We are not absolutely sure that the image in the portrait in our house is of Meriwether Lewis. With careful inspection, when compared with the Peale portrait, it appears to be two different men. Charles Willson Peale painted his portrait of Lewis after the explorer returned from the Expedition and was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory. In the Peale version, we see Lewis a few years older with blue eyes and a graying comb-over.

[8]  https://www.monticello.org/sites/library/exhibits/lucymarks/lucymarks/lucy.html Most of the Lewis and Meriwether historical records are kept in Monticello, with the Jefferson Library. Since Meriwether Lewis was Pres. Jefferson’s personal secretary and the Lewis & Clark Expeditions were ordered by him and Congress, that makes sense. The richness of the family history comes out in personal letters, and less so from the stark statistics of who owned what farm or who sold what acreage to whom. Yet, since this is a spotlight on slavery, that detail is brought out in the open in this Witness Post.