Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sharing York's Story: A Member of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery

Corps of Discovery figure, York, is a 1:6 scale pose-able figure that depicts the only African American member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803-1806

In American history classes we learned about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which is also referred to as the Corps of Discovery.  Our lessons taught us that upon Thomas Jefferson's order, Meriwether Lewis and his friend, William Clark, led an expedition to find a water route to the Pacific and explore the land acquired from France that comprised the Louisiana Territory (the then uncharted West).

In addition to Lewis and Clark, several other men comprised the Corps of Discovery.  However, Clark's slave from childhood,York, and his contributions were omitted from our obviously biased state-approved 1960s textbooks. Two additional members later joined the expedition, Toussaint Charbonneau and his expectant wife of Shoshone heritage, Sacagawea. 


Dressed in period-appropriate early 1800s clothing with white ruffle shirt, burgundy vest, white pants, green socks, and moccasins, York's accessories include a rifle, hand gun, knife, two axes, water bottle, and oar.


The Corps of Discovery playscale figure made by Manitou Free Traders L.L.C. ©2004 along with Catherine McGrew Jaime's 2011 book, York Proceeded On the Lewis & Clark Expedition Through the Eyes of Their Forgotten Member will be included in my future Dolls with Books exhibits.

In Jaime's book, York Proceeded On, using journal accounts of the exposition written by many expedition members, mainly Lewis and Clark, the author takes literary license and allows York to share the story of his participation with his grandchildren.  His grands have heard the story many times before as narrated by York, but are eager to hear it once again and become appropriately excited and saddened by some of the events he recounts.



The back of the box, shown above, describes York and his role in the expedition as follows:

Known to us only by the name York, this member of the expedition was the personal property of Captain Clark.  We know nothing of his appearance other than the brief description of "muscular and very black."

Owned by the Clark family from birth, he was the son of Old York and Rose.  York grew up with William Clark and is believed to have been about the same age.  If this is correct, he would have been born around 1770 and would have been 34 years old when the expedition began.

His role in the expedition is listed as servant.  York carried a rifle (uncommon for this period) and hunted for the party as one of his duties.  Clark noted in his Oct. 9, 1804 journal entry, 'The Indians [are] much astonished at my Black servant and call him Big Medicine.  This nation never saw a Black man before.'

November 23, 1805 proved to be an historic day as York and the Native American woman, Sacagawea, were both given the right to cast votes to determine the location of their winter quarters.  This is the first recorded vote of a Black in American history.

Clark eventually afforded York his freedom in 1816, and he died in Tennessee [some time] before 1832.
Close-up of the York playscale figure

As William Clark's personal slave prior to, during, and for some ten years after the expedition ended, York was a vital member of the Corps of Discovery who participated fully.  He was a swimmer who hunted and sought food for Corps members and himself.  He attended to the ill-stricken and was even said to have been a practical joker.   As indicated above, York is noted as the first Black man to cast a vote and first Black man to cross the continent North of Mexico.

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  • More about York, which includes several of Clark's expedition journal entries can be read here.
  • A full-view image of Ed Hamilton's stature of York, located in Louisville, Kentucky, which is the head shot used on the cover of Jaime's book, can be seen here.
  • Sacagawea's time line is documented here.

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8 comments:

  1. I love seeing historical figures like this - they're usually such interesting conversation pieces. And how wonderful that they go into more details than the classroom version of the story!

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    1. Hi jSarie!

      I just found additional information and images of the other Corps of Discovery one-sixth figures made by Manitou on the Open Range Western Figures board. The photos are wonderful! Hope you'll enjoy seeing Lewis & Clark, additional photos of York, Touissant Charbonneau, Sacagawea and Jean-Baptiste.

      Here is the link and the URL: http://openrange.freeforums.org/corps-of-discovery-maybe-the-first-in-the-west-t1845.html

      I also learned that York's original retail was $59. I only paid $16.99 for York.

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  2. Congratulations on that cool and unique find, DBG! And at that price.

    Your Dolls with Books exhibits are impressive and even more so with this addition. Thanks for sharing him.

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    1. Thanks, D7ana! The next time I set up the exhibit, it will be a one-day event where I discuss each doll with an audience of children. No date set... just planning to do this some time in the near future, possibly this summer.

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  3. Wow, thanks so much for sharing this information. He is a very nice sculpt.

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    1. You're welcome, Vanessa. York, the figure, looks like he could be someone's grandfather, especially with the male pattern baldness they gave him. (Follow the link in my comment to jSarie for additional photos.)

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  4. What a treasure! I like how they sculpted his face. It has a tired wisdom about it.

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    1. I like the sculpt, too, Muff. He is definitely a welcome addition to the doll family.

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Thank you! Your comments are appreciated!