May 14, 1804 – The Lewis and Clark Expedition Sets Out from Camp Dubois, Illinois

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery Expedition (more popularly known as “The Lewis and Clark Expedition”) shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He wanted to know just what the U.S. had purchased, and if the land contained a water route to the Pacific.

Captains Lewis and Clark recruited twenty-seven volunteers to join them on the mission. In addition, Captain Clark ordered York, his slave, to prepare for the trip. Thus, in May, 1804, twenty-eight men left from St. Louis, Missouri in three boats with the goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean.

There are many stories written about Lewis and Clark. Most do not tell the story the slave York.

York fulfilled important roles on the expedition. As Smithsonian Magazine reports:

As detailed in ‘The Journals of Lewis and Clark,’ during the two years of the Corps of Discovery expedition, York handled firearms, killed game and helped to navigate trails and waterways. In early December 1804, York was one of 15 men on a dangerous buffalo hunt to replenish their supply. ‘Several men returned a little frost bit,’ wrote Clark in his journal. ‘Servents [sic] feet also frosted…’ Native Americans they encountered were reportedly awestruck with York’s appearance, and he was later allowed to have a vote in key decisions. But when the men returned to the East legends and heroes, York, whose contributions to the expedition rivaled that of his comrades, returned to a life of enslavement.”

And yet, York was not freed by Clark after the mission, nor was he allowed to stay with his family when Clark moved to St. Louis. Clark had ordered him beaten, jailed, and forced into hard labor in attempts to break York’s continued desire to be free.

In an 1832 interview with Washington Irving, Clark claimed he had freed York and set him up in a business at which he failed. Then, according to Clark, York died of cholera while trying to return to Clark. There is no evidence for any of it.

What is clear is that York made a substantial and positive contribution to the Expedition, but like many men and women in history “behind the scenes” – especially black slaves, he received no credit for it.

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