York of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. By Laurence Pringle, illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. Calkins Creek Books, 2006.
Our fourth grades do a study of the Lewis and Clark expedition every year. The students chose five members of the Lewis and Clark expedition to research write about and present for their project. In our school York is always one of the most popular and compelling figures. There isn't as much information available about him. Because of his status as a slave and because he was not allowed to learn to read and write his journals never existed. It was against Virginia law, where he was born and raised, to teach a slave to read and write. For that reason his point of view cannot accurately be told and his life story must be pieced together from the records kept by others.
Laurence Pringle begins his book American Slave, American Hero by pointing that out in the introduction. He says, “In the 1770s, two boys were born on a Virginia plantation. One became a famous explorer and leader whose name is still celebrated to this day. Today the other is also considered a national hero but few know his name: York. Little is known about some times in his life, so you will find the word “Probably” used occasionally in this, the true story of York.”
Pringle tells about his early life with the William Clark family, as he became William’s personal slave at the age of 12 and worked alongside him in setting up a new family homestead in the Ohio River valley. York married his sweetheart, a slave woman from a neighboring farm, in his late 20s. His wife’s name is not known, nor whether they had any children.
When Clark received the call to join Meriwether Lewis on the great expedition in 1803, York was chosen to go with him. Pringle points out that “As a slave, York could not volunteer, or refuse, to go on the expedition. Whether he went was up to his master.” Clark wanted him along so there he was. Clark writes in his journal of all the work York contributes to, including gathering food for the party and attending to the sick or injured. He was known as a good hunter and a reliable help in difficulty.
On several occasions when the expedition met with Native Americans York was considered “big Medicine” and greatly admired. York again and again shines as capable, industrious and adaptable. The Shoshone (Sacagawea’s tribe) in particular admired York because of his dark skin, which they considered to be the mark of a great warrior. York is also mentioned as being instrumental in rowing and navigating the river boats and trading with the Nez Perce for food and supplies.
In September of 1806 the expedition finally returned to St. Lewis, Missouri. York was praised as a hero right along with the rest of the party, but he was not rewarded with land and money as the free white men were. He still belonged to Clark as a slave for another ten years before he was given his freedom. His wife lived far from him and although he asked permission to return to live with her he was refused. When her owner moved to Mississippi he lost contact with her. York died of cholera in 1832. His place of death and burial is unknown. Pringle says, “Like the other explorers, York endured extreme heat and cold, suffered injuries and illness, risked his life many times, and contributed to the success of an expedition that is still considered the greatest in United States history. He was both a slave and an American hero. In 2001, long after his death, York was promoted to the rank of honorary sergeant, Regular Army, by President William Jefferson Clinton.”
In the author’s note at the back of the book Pringle points out that in researching for this book he found more than a dozen books about Sacagawea and at least six about Seaman the dog that went on the journey but few about York. It is clear that this volume is much needed and makes a valuable contribution to our American history. This book is well written, beautifully illustrated and highly recommended. Bartography reviewed this book here.