Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Alternative Ending of York, the Black Chief

(There is an alternative ending to the life of York the slave of William Clark.)

I have this great moment with my kids all the time.  We roll up in Princess Sparkleface to some obscure place...
(One where he does not die of cholera, broke and destroyed, separated from his wife and children.)

Kick open the doors... do a quick stretch... grab the guidebook and a foldable map.  They've got a juicebox in one hand and a cell phone in the other... and we head out across the grass or the sand dunes or the lush forest or into a maze of concrete buildings... to discover something.
(It's disputed, so are many legends of the west, but in 1839 a trapper named Zenas Leonard published an account of his travels "trapping for furs, trading with the Indians in the Rocky Mountains," in which he wrote of a chance meeting in a Crow Indian camp and encountering a man who claimed to be York, the famed slave adventurer of the Corps of Discovery."

 Of course, we always get lost!  And here's when the moment happens...
(Leonard Wrote:   "In this village [Crow Indian] we found a negro man who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis and Clark- with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again ... and remained about ten or twelve years." )

 There's always a stranger.  Some local person standing behind a counter making espressos or sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons, some mom jogger in tights, some retired grandfather on a bike... and I stop them and ask for help.
(Leonard continued:   "He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently.  He has rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village and assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives with whom he lives alternatively."  -Zenas Leonard, Crow Indian Account, 1839)

 "Excuse me.  Hi, good morning.  Do you know where the York statue is?"
"The what?"
"The statute of York.  He was William Clark's slave.  He was the only African-American on the Corps of Discovery."
(Could this be true?  That York had somehow managed his travel from Kentucky and Missouri, after finally earning his freedom, and been found living as an Indian chief west of the Mississippi?)

 Then there is always this moment where their eyes adjust and they take us in.  They see my children.  Their journals and ziploc bags full of colored pencils.  Their eager faces studying a map, pointing, straining to see beyond the trees.  They pause for a moment before answering, and then say, "Yes, I know York.  He's on the other side of library.  Go straight, turn right on the path through the trees."
(That a man could escape the "perceived" historical facts of his life like one who trades in the bitterness of scars for the joy of freedom and find his own way in the world? Could this be possible?)

 I give a quick thanks and turn to go, but they always ask. "What... What are you doing?"  I try hard not to answer.  I leave it to my children to say.  "We're on a field trip.  We're studying American literature and history.  We've been reading the Journals of Lewis and Clark, we came here today, to Lewis and Clark College, to show our respects to York."
(Two years later, Leonard passed through the same Crow village and became better acquainted with the 'Old Negro' writing: "He is considered of great value by the Indians.  He enjoys perfect peace and satisfaction, and has everything that he desires at his own command."  -Zenas Leonard, Crow Indian Account, 1839 )

 You can imagine people's faces.  We have received such kind and warm hearted replies.  Many people just start telling me about the travels they remember with their parents from years ago.  The memories of their past suddenly flood back to life.
(It's such a beautiful account.  After all that hardship, to live out your life in peace and dignity, and resting forever in this kind of American legend.)

 Of course, many say with a sigh, "I wish I had done that."
(Leonard concludes that not long after this meeting, he saw the Black Chief lead an assault against invading Blackfoot warriors:  "He leapped from the rock on which he had been standing... the Indians guessing his purpose, and inspired by his words and fearless example, followed close to his heels and were dealing destruction ..."   -Zenas Leonard, Crow Indian Account, 1839.  I like it, York the Black Chief.  May you all rest in similar peace.)

 The world is so confusing these days.  It's hard to know what is real and where the truth splits into alternative facts and subsequent spins of possible actualities.  But this... this is real.  The look on these people's faces is real.  The time spent with my daughters is pure and simple and true.  I feel like the most blessed person alive.

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