Eastern Washington University senior lecturer Robert Bartlett will look a little different than usual when he speaks about William Clark’s slave, York, at a Black History Month event at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at South Hill Library, 3324 S. Perry St. Bartlett will appear in character as an older York, right down to the buckskin clothes.
Bartlett has been appearing as York for the past eight years, performing all over the Northwest. He got started after he became fascinated with York.
“I’m a sociologist by discipline, but I use history to inform my sociology,” he said.
Bartlett found a book on the Lewis and Clark expedition titled “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose. Among those pictured on the cover was a black man with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and Bartlett wondered who that could be.
He was soon seeking out accounts of the expedition and piecing together all the information he could about York.
“York is like a footnote,” Bartlett said. “He was a slave, Clark’s slave. There wasn’t a whole lot in one spot. There was bits and pieces.”
York’s family was owned by Clark’s family. The two were around the same age and grew up together. York was Clark’s manservant and therefore responsible for Clark, Bartlett said. But things changed once the military expedition left in search of the Pacific coast.
“York’s story takes a turn once the expedition really starts,” Bartlett said.
Clark gave York a gun, powder and bullets, which was unheard of for a slave to have at the time. York also functioned as the camp cook and dinner was often something York had shot along the way, Bartlett said. Clark also soon realized that York was a novelty to the Native tribes they met, which made York a useful way to defuse any tensions.
“Among the Native people, he gained quite a reputation,” Bartlett said. “He was called Big Medicine. He was called Raven’s Son. York became one of those hidden assets. Some natives would trade with him. They trusted him.”
York would do other things not usually possible for ordinary slaves. When the expedition reached the coast and the men voted on where to build their encampment for the winter, Clark told York to cast his vote along with the rest.
“He was actually included, which was another testament to how he was treated equally,” Bartlett said.
But when the two-and-a-half-year journey was over, things didn’t go well for York. Clark demanded he give up his rifle and bullets and expected York to go back to being an ordinary slave. Clark soon noted that York became “unmanageable” and “insolent” and had York whipped and put in jail, Bartlett said.
“They had a falling out,” he said.
Things get a little fuzzy from there. There are accounts that York left Clark to search for his family, but returned when his search was unsuccessful. Some say he died in a disease outbreak, others that he was freed by Clark and disappeared.
“There’s no account of where York was born or where York was buried,” Bartlett said. “There’s only speculation.”
But Bartlett found a compelling argument for what happened to York in the book “In Search of York” by Robert Betts. Betts said York was approached by a fur trader who wanted York to guide him to the Rockies and introduce him to the Native tribes, and York accepted.
“His take on what happened is York stayed,” Bartlett said. “He settled among them. He has documents to support this.”
Bartlett said he can understand why York would want to leave the life of a slave behind after having been treated as an equal on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“York had been free,” he said. “You can imagine if York had a way to leave, he would.”
This is the ending Bartlett portrays in his living history presentation on York.
“I like this ending better than the others,” he said.
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