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”.