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Know Your Black History: York — The first Black man in the Pacific Northwest

The first Black man known to visit the Vancouver, Washington area and to see the Pacific Ocean, was York, the Black man who was enslaved to William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Corps of Discovery. York had been given to William Clark as his personal slave when both were still boys and as Clark’s body servant accompanied him nearly everywhere. Living on the frontier of Kentucky, they both gained important outdoor skills that would later prove useful to the expedition.



Much is known about the Corps of Discovery through Lewis and Clarks’ diaries and letters, and stories from the white expedition members, but there is no record of York’s impressions or thoughts. The Affrilachian Poet, Frank X. Walker, gives York a voice in Buffalo Dance—the Journey of York. In the poem, In God’s House, he starts with “nobody asked me if I wanted to go, he just say pack and pointed to the door”.


Although a slave, as the expedition got underway York became an equal expedition member. He carried a gun, had equal vote as to where they wintered over, was an acknowledged expert at navigating rivers, and was critical in negotiations with Native Americans. Later in that same poem, Walker states the uniqueness of York’s situation… And where else but God’s house can a body servant/Big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet ana bone handle knife/so sharp it can peel the black off a lump a coal/an the white man/ still close his eyes and feel safe at night?


But, when York returned from the expedition, he returned not to the fame the white expedition members returned to, but to the life of a slave, without the freedoms he had enjoyed. Many had expected that Clark would manumit York when they returned, but he did not do so until many years later (around 1815). As a free man, York slipped into anonymity in a system meant to keep Black people repressed. Despite being kept in slavery for most of his life, York is a consequential figure in the colonial exploration of the American continent—albeit one written without his consent—leaving behind a legacy much more than most men of his era.

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