York: Mystery man of the Corps of Discovery

A friend called the other day to say I might want to take a look at a story in the Metro section of The Washington Post.

She knew that I had recently completed a children's novel on the topic of York, the black man who accompanied explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historic cross-country trek.

The day before, I had read a news article on the subject in the Daily Progress. Both articles are about events scheduled to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Progress article detailed celebrations and events occurring in area schools, while the Post story was about the expedition's famous Indian guide: "Sacagawea Famed, Yet a Mystery."

My friend was concerned that the Post story may have scooped my novel in some way. She need not have worried. The Post story reveals what I discovered for myself during my research– Sacagawea is commemorated around the country by at least 23 statues, not to mention numerous lakes, schools, mountains, and rivers. She has her own golden coin, and two– count 'em, two– grave markers. Soon, no doubt, a Western Barbie will befriend her, and she'll become a doll.

But my novel isn't about Sacagawea. My novel answers the question posed by the last sentence in the Progress story, which is illustrated by a picture of an African-American child dressed as Sacagawea. An astute school administrator, noticing that all the children were playing with dolls of Lewis and Clark, asks: "What about York? Where is York?"

This is the question I've been asking myself for the past eight years, ever since I wrote and had produced locally a children's play called Sacajawea and York: The Hidden Heroes of Lewis and Clark. I found whole books written about Sacagawea, and twocount 'em, two– books written from the point of view of Lewis's dog that went along on the expedition. But very little about York.

When I began my research in 1994, the Internet was relatively new, and I wasn't online. Now, it's easier to find information about previously unknown members of the expedition. I discovered In Search of York, by Robert Betts, originally published in 1985 and reissued in 2000 by the University Press of Colorado.

I recently located a speech given at Montana State University in December 1998 by William and Mary Professor Philip Morgan. As a historian, Morgan agrees with Betts that the historical record is as divided about York as it is about Sacagawea's death. In one version of history, Clark did not grant York his freedom after they returned from the expedition. Another version claims that Clark did free York, but found that his former slave couldn't handle being free.

In some materials still being used in schools, misinformation is presented as history. One of the texts for children says President Thomas Jefferson freed York when the slave returned with the expedition. And his master, William Clark, is often referred to as "Captain Clark" despite the fact that– as Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage makes clear– Clark was commissioned a lieutenant. (Although he was paid as a captain, he had not been officially commissioned at that rank.)

Why has York been ignored for so long? And is he still being ignored? Ambrose does not list Betts in his bibliography, so we can assumed that the late historian probably didn't consult it. Ambrose makes only 14 references to York, the same number he makes to Reubin Field, a woodsman and hunter Clark recruited for the expedition. Pierre Cruzatte, another of the expedition members, merits 22 references– one of his claims to fame was playing the violin.

York voted on the decision to cross the Columbia River, thereby becoming the first black man in America to cast a vote.

York also had a say about where to pitch a winter camp; he attended to the ailing Charles Floyd and to the pregnant Sacagawea; and he procured food for the expedition– including three elk, five buffalo, two geese, eight ducks, and a deer.

York was the source of endless fascination among the Indians– they called him the "black white man." Meriwether Lewis showed off York as a physical novelty in his successful effort to obtain the horses crucial to the expedition's crossing of the Rocky Mountains.

But when the pages of history turn, York is barely there. Unlike Sacagawea, there are no statues of York and no grave markers. Nobody knows where York is buried. Sacagawea is not a mystery. York is.

In my fictional story, a student at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School wants to write York into his rightful place in history. While I was penning that novel, The Boy Who Moved a Mountain, last spring, a documentary filmmaker riding the same zeitgeist wrote a history for children called Who Is York: A New Look at the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ron Craig, an executive producer with Filmworks Northwest, said he wanted to set the record straight.

Craig has given three different presentations out west, including one May 22, at which a Portland, Oregon, street became the first named for the black explorer. Craig has been in town this week giving performances at area schools, and he will speak about York at Old Cabell Hall on January 16.

With this Charlottesville excursion, Craig will have traveled all over the country on behalf of York. In the last days of the Clinton administration, he was invited to the White House when President Bill Clinton awarded York and Sacagawea sergeant stripes and finally made William Clark's captain commission official.

Craig is filming a documentary about York because, as he says, "The story is just so empowering. An African-American boy asked me what York looked like," he continues, "and I walked him over to the mirror. 'Like you,' I said, and he gave a wide grin."

Mariflo Stevens is a Charlottesville writer whose stories have been published in a variety of journals, including the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her novel for children is currently being shopped by an agent in New York.