York, Sacajewa and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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William Loren Katz

[Adapted from BLACK INDIANS: A HIDDEN HERITAGE [Atheneum, 2012 expanded edition by William Loren Katz; www.williamlkatz]

When President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, he doubled the size of the new United States of America. This also gave two Americans -- whites considered unneeded, inferior or criminal -- a unique opportunity to serve as US ambassadors of good will. Sacajewa, a brilliant Shoshone woman, carrying her newly-born boy, and York, a tall, muscular, fast-thinking, enslaved man, worked together to make the 44-member Lewis and Clark Expedition the success Jefferson hoped for.

To survey the new land that stretched from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson asked his good friends, Merriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the region’s resources, trade possibilities -- and above all to establish peaceful relations with its two dozen Native American nations.

York, 33 was born into Virginia slavery in the slavholding Clark family. He grew up with William Clark also 33 and the two earlier explored together. In l799 when William inherited the family estate, he owned his childhood companion. By this time York was an imposing six feet in height and over 200 pounds -- in an age when most men were under five foot six.

In St. Louis as the explorers began to train, York picked up French and Indian words. Sacagewa, her child and French husband soon joined the party and f or the next two and a half years York, Sacajewa and her husband translated Native American languages into French and English. Sacajewa and York did more. They were able to convince one Native American Nation after another that the 44 came in peace and friendship, especially since Sacajewa was a Shoshone carrying her infant.

York also became one of the party's best hunters, fishermen and scouts.  By the last year of the journey he was given the assignment of trading with Indians for the expedition's food.

But York’s diplomacy rested on more than his considerable frontier skills, command of language and smiling good will. He was as fast on his feet as he was in languages, and utilized his agility when negotiating. Many Native Americans had never seen an African American of his size and strength.  Clark's diary records when the Arikara "all flocked around him and examined him from top to toe," York responded by dancing, showing "his powers of strength" and telling the astonished Arikara that he had once been a "wild animal."  He consistently won new friends for the expedition.

All the way to the Pacific coast, Clark also wrote, Indian women were "very fond" of York. Like others in the expedition, York had "wives" in the Indian villages.

Among the Mandan Indians on the Upper Missouri, York leaped, danced,  and startled people that so "large a man should be so active" and agile.  Fascinated Mandans tried to rub York's black skin with a wet finger to see if the color would come off. Artist Charles Russell captured this moment in a famous painting.

The Shoshone, Nez Perce and Nations along the Columbia river found York fascinating. York's diplomatic skills turned this fascination into a  bargaining tool, as he became a skilled negotiator.

By the end of l805, Sacagewa and York had earned equal voting privileges in the expedition.  Sacajewa and York had travelled far from the lowly places white society had assigned them.

One Flathead Indian explained how his people viewed York:

Those who had been brave and fearless, the victorious ones in battle, painted themselves in charcoal.  So the black man, they thought, had been the bravest in the party.

At the expedition’s end, Clark and York returned to Kentucky and dull routine. But when Clark was appointed Governor of the Missouri Territory and Director of Indian Affairs, York accompanied him. He hired out near Louisville so he could be near his wife, who worked for a white family.

Clark finally  liberated York and gave him a wagon and six horses. He ran a transportation business between Nashville and Richmond before he finally died of cholera.

More statues celebrate Sacajawea than any other woman in the country. St Louis has a York monument. 

Lewis and Clark and Sacajewa and York worked for the most important early US expedition, and Sacajewa and York became the country’s first successful ambassadors of good will.