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.
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.
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.
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.
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.