Places to go and things to see by Gypsy Bev

Posts tagged ‘western frontier’

York, Slave of William Clark, Once Felt Freedom

Tracker… Negotiator…Ambassador…Doctor.  All these words were used at one time or another to describe York, Captain William Clark’s black manservant, who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back to the East. York’s story was told under the red and white striped tent at the 2012 Chautauqua celebration in Marietta, Ohio on the campus of Marietta College. This year’s theme, “When Ohio Was the Western Frontier”, introduced characters that played a role in Ohio’s early history. York, being from Virginia, spent much time on and along the Ohio River.

As the first recorded black explorer, York created much excitement as he traveled across the Western frontier.  Due to his large size and black skin, his presence amazed and intrigued the Indians along the way. Thinking perhaps that he was painted black, at many stops the Indians would spit on their fingers and try to rub the black color from his skin. Indian tribes considered him a friend and referred to him as Big Medicine, since he frequently gave them liniments and herbs to heal their ailments. Some even called him Giant Medicine due to his size, and felt that his skin had sacred power.  This was a time in York’s life when he said, “How great it felt to be admired.  I felt ten feet tall.”

Because he enjoyed storytelling and drinking, York was very popular in taverns wherever he went. His speech was much like “the white man’s” since he had grown up in his master’s household. Never having been taught to read or write, he relied on his tall tales, some higher than the mountains, to entertain the explorers and those he met along the way. The Indian squaws favored him with special treatment, and he entertained the children with stories of being wild. His contribution as a peace maker with the Indians helped make the expedition more successful.

Life was not easy on the journey as they were often cold and hungry. They drank bear fat and even ate candles to survive. At times when food was scare, York was entrusted with a musket, something that never would have been permitted this slave while in Virginia. There were times when they were fortunate to encounter a herd of elk.  Then they ate elk, elk, and more elk all day long. If no other meat was available, they even ate their dogs and found them quite tasty. The children in the tent at Marietta that evening were quite concerned about the expedition eating dogs, and were assured it was only done during an emergency when no other food was available.

When they returned to the East, York reverted to his position as a manservant. He only wanted freedom to be with his wife but this was not to be. Instead he was flogged, even jailed and then hired out to a severe master where he was given spoiled food and further mistreated.

Even though York was married, he seldom saw his wife as she too was a slave. They lost contact completely when she was sent to Mississippi to work on a plantation. So even though he knew she was expecting their child, he never got to see the child or even know of its whereabouts. When he asked Captain Clark if he could be sold as a slave with his wife, Clark said it was out of the question. York said the most painful time he encountered in his life was saying goodbye to his wife.

What really happened to York? Some accounts say that he was eventually freed, but given the fact that he had no knowledge of business was not able to make his way in the world.  Other accounts say he was spotted later with the Crow Indians in the Rocky Mountains. Hope it was the later!

As York sat at the tavern on the Chautauqua stage, he said he was thankful for the Expedition as for a short time he knew what freedom felt like. There his color was not a curse but a blessing. His dream was to eventually go back to the Indians.  His presentation concluded with a toast to the Great Expedition, the beauty and majesty of our great nation, Captain Clark, the Indians, and Big Medicine.

Marvin Jefferson did a very believable portrayal of York. His background as an educator and historical scholar has given him incite into Civil Rights issues and he frequently portrays Martin Luther King, Jr and Paul Robeson in his stage performances.

2012 Ohio Chautauqua continues throughout the summer with week long performances and workshops in Urbana (June 26-30), Gallipolis (July 17-21) and Warren (July 24-28).  Hope you find time to join them and learn a little more about “When Ohio Was the Western Frontier”.

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Margaret Blennerhassett Prosperity to Poverty

More is better! That was the feeling of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett as they came to the United States from England in 1797. Their marriage was frowned upon by friends and family in England since Harman was Margaret’s uncle; therefore, their best chance at a happy life together would have to be in a far away country.  Having sold his castle in England, the Blennerhassetts arrived in the United States with lots and lots of money…$140,000! While this fortune seemed limitless at that time, the Blennerhassetts spent their fortune recklessly and unwisely, always wanting more.

The aristocratic Margaret Blennerhassett was the first historic character for  “When Ohio Was the Western Frontier”, the theme for  2012 Ohio Chautauqua in Marietta, Ohio on the campus of Marietta College.  She received a warm welcome as temperatures soared to near 100 in the red and white striped tent.

Margaret’s story continued with their search for a place to built their new home, and ultimate discovery of  a beautiful tree covered island in the middle of the Ohio River. Margaret thought this would be the perfect place for the elegant home she had in mind so they bought half of the island, approximately 180 acres, for $4500.

One corner of the island was cleared of the huge trees so the mansion would appear as a pearl against green velvet as the boats passed by on the Ohio River. Here they built a luxurious twelve room mansion that had thirty-six glass windows, something not common at that time of log cabins with tar paper windows. Two covered porticos flanked the main house leading to its two appendages: Harman’s office and the summer kitchen.

Not only was the house a beautiful spot but there were acres of gardens and a greenhouse where citrus fruits grew all winter long. There was even special shrubbery trimmed in the shape of the original thirteen colonies.  Margaret especially enjoyed riding her white horse, Robin, over the island appearing as an exotic bird in her scarlet riding cape and feathered hat. Yes, more was definitely better.

But their happy life was short-lived here on the spot they called Blennerhassett Island. Some compared it to the beautiful Garden of Eden, but both seemed to have a snake that spoiled their pleasure. This time it was a snake in the form of Aaron Burr that wanted something forbidden.

Margaret said that Aaron Burr was a genius who applied to college at the age of eleven and graduated from Princeton at an early age. Burr was a very handsome man who loved fine things especially when procured through other people’s money. After a tie in a presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the recount made Jefferson the President, and the loser, Aaron Burr, the vice-president. Things did not start out on a good foot here, and Burr was more than a little dissatisfied.

In 1805, Burr visited Blennerhassett Island for dinner as he was curious about the eccentric foreigner … or perhaps he had heard of the money Blennerhassett had available to “invest” in his plans. Burr led them to believe that this was an easy way for them to increase their fortune.  These events took place at a time when the Blennerhassett funds were running low.

Margaret felt that Thomas Jefferson was the real serpent that crawled into their Garden of Eden in order to destroy them. There was a lot of animosity between Jefferson and Burr.  Margaret said that Jefferson was not the wonderful president that many thought he was.  She felt the Louisiana Purchase was illegal, and while considered an inventor said he only had invented two things: a wheel cypher secret decoder and a plow. Thomas Jefferson was said to even cut parts out of the Bible that he didn’t like or wish to follow in his life. It was quite obvious that Margaret did not have fond feelings for President Jefferson.

Jefferson tried to destroy Aaron Burr and by association, Harman Blennerhassett. He attempted to use his power to have Burr found guilty of treason.  However, Chief Justice John Marshall stood up to Jefferson, and the jury found Aaron Burr not guilty. Burr and Blennerhassett were both released from prison.

By this time, their house on the island had been looted with most of the fine things being carried off. The remainder of the items were sold at auction to pay off debts accumulated by the Blennerhassetts. In 1811, their beautiful mansion was burned to the ground. At this point, the Blennerhassett family fell into hardships and eventual poverty for the remainder of their lives.  Their hopes and dreams were shattered.

Debra Conner’s portrayal of Margaret Blennerhassett was outstanding. Debra actually spent much of her youth in the Marietta community and graduated from Marietta High School.  Often during the year, she presents similar programs to the area schools on both sides of the Ohio River as part of their Ohio or West Virginia history curriculum.

2012 Ohio Chautauqua continues throughout the summer with week long performances and workshops in Urbana (June 26-30), Gallipolis (July 17-21) and Warren (July 24-28).  Hope you find time to join them and learn a little more about “When Ohio Was the Western Frontier”.

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