York Was The Only Black Man On The Lewis And Clark Expedition

James P. Beckwourth circa 1860
Shonda Buchanan
August 2, 2020

“You don’t belong here!” the angry white soldier yelled as he flung sand into York’s eyes. The moment could have cost York everything. Not just his vision or his life, but his pivotal role during the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition

Did York snap the racist white man’s neck?

No. The enslaved “body servant” of William Clark knew he’d be hanged. 

Instead, he kept his self-respect and dignity, hoping that if he proved himself on this journey, his dedication would be rewarded after it was over.

For two years and 8,000 miles, York carried a gun, hunted buffalo, and befriended the Indigenous people they encountered. They ONLY let the explorers into their camps because of York, calling him "Big Medicine.” 

York’s presence made the Lewis and Clark expedition’s success possible - he even saved Clark’s life more than once! Would he be rewarded for his incredible sacrifice and skill?

No. When the expedition was over, Clark refused to free York. Instead, he sent York to a brutal slaver in Kentucky for a year! 

Without York, Clark would have failed and possibly died. But Clark didn’t care.

169 years after his death, President Bill Clinton granted York the rank of Honorary Sergeant in the Army. 

Why did this accolade take so long? And how many of our heroes remain underappreciated, lost to a racist version of American History?

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