Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hood River and The Sad Fate of York the Slave

(Wind Surfing in Hood River Oregon)

"In the evening 2 Chief and 15 men came over in a single canoe... They determined to stay with us all night, we had a fire made for them and one man played on the violin which please them much... my servant danced..."  -Clark, Oct 26, 1805

From the moment of his birth, York was essentially the property of William Clark.  Born on the family plantation, the two played together as boys and York eventually became Clark's body servant.  Upon Clark's father's death, he stipulated in his will that his son William would received 8 slaves including York, Old York (the slave father) his wife Rose, and Nancy and Juba (York's children).  At the age of 29, William Clark received these slaves.  When the Corps of Discovery headed west, York accompanied Clark.
(Hood River along the Columbia, has always been a place of freedom and joy for nature lovers)

"York brought my horse, he is here but of very little service to me... insolent and sulky, I gave him a severe trouncing the other day and he has much mended since... could he be hired for anything at or near Louisville, I think if he was hired there a while to a severe master he would see the difference and do better." -Clark, letter to his brother, 1809

York was the only black man and only slave that set out on the expedition of 33 people through the unknown Louisiana Territory.  During their two year trek, he experienced more freedom that he had in his whole life.  Hunting, exploring, tracking game, navigating, his voice was listened to and he was viewed as an equal.  At the Pacific Ocean, he was the last to cast a vote on which side of the Columbia to winter.  A site that would later be known as Fort Clatsop.  The slave York, could be considered the first recorded Black voter in American history.
(I love this little town, home also to Full Sail, which every Oregonian knows)

"Indeed I have been olbiged to whip almost all my people... and they are now beginning to think that it is best to do better and not cry hard when I am compelled to use the whip.  They have been troublesome but are not all so now."  -Clark, July 1808

Things proved disastrous upon his return.  Mostly, York could never again adjust to life as a slave after having tasted freedom on the previous journey.  He quarreled openly with Clark and their relationship deteriorated.  
(Lewis and Clark... along with Sacagawea and York and the others, all passed through here.  They likely stopped here and rested.  Felt the swirling winds.  Marveled at glistening Mt. Hood.)

"I have made frequent enquiries relative to the conduct of York since his living here and in justice to him must assert that all the information I have been able to gather contribute strongly to prove that his conduct has been such as entitles him to credit."  -Clark, spring 1811

The problems between Clark and York intensified when Clark was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs and moved to St. Louis, effectively separating York permanently from his wife and children.  Clark routinely whipped York for his sullen and morose attitude during this time.  Clark wrote: "I did wish to do well by [York] - but as he has got such a notion about freedom and his ... service, that I do not expect he will be of much service to me again."  York was then sold back toward Louisville where he could be close to his family.
(Spending days in Hood River, I can't help but think of York... standing here, feeling the wind, feeling freedom.  There's nothing more incredible than feeling free)

"His slaves- set them free- one he placed at a ferry- another on a farm, giving him land, horses and a third he gave a large wagon and team of 6 horses ... the waggoner was York, the hero of the Missouri expedition and adviser of the Indians."  -Washington Irving, quoting Clark upon their meeting, Sept. 13, 1832

The ultimate fate of York was accounted by none other than Washington Irving, the great American writer of Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, who visited an aging Clark in St. Louis in 1832, many years after the Corps of Discovery had made them all famous.  Irving recounts how they ate a splendid lunch and discussed Indian matters and travel routes (Irving himself was to venture west for his own travel book: A Tour of the Prairies) and Clark proved insightful and incredibly knowledgable. He even detailed the deaths and demises of many of the original Corps members.  He said of York, that he eventually granted him freedom and given him cart and horses... which York tried to sell but was cheated.  Clark said York attempted many times to come back to slavery in his service, saying it was easier to be a slave under a master than out on his own... but that he eventually died of cholera. It's a sad and tragic end.  York loses everything.  His wife, his home, his possessions, even his relationship with Clark.  It's a profound sadness... and symbolizes all of slavery in itself. 

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