William Clark Did Not Reward York with Freedom. . . at Least Not for Several Years

sculpture base at U. of Portland

Yes, it’s a pile of rocks. I came upon it while walking around the University of Portland campus one day this past week. Each day of my week-long Portland stay began with a walk around my University Park neighborhood before I headed over to my daughter’s house to hang with my new grandson. Anomalies always inspire curiosity.

To the uninitiated (such as myself), one of the first things you notice when you visit Portland is the abundance of memorials to Merriwether Lewis and William Clark and other reminders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corps of Discovery. Until my daughter moved to the Pacific Northwest ten years ago, there was really little substance to my understanding of that stage of what many of us call “American history”. (And of course, that understanding had been shaped by a K-12 Eurocentric curriculum.) If you asked me to explain what I recalled about the whole Lewis and Clark thing, I’d probably say something like, “One of them was Merriwether, and they wore buckskin outfits and traversed wide swathes of wilderness in our country’s vast interior, forded wrathful rivers, came upon hostile Indians — whom they either subdued or befriended if there was something to be gained through such exploitation — and they eventually arrived at the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they exclaimed, ‘We have thus succeeded in manifesting destiny.'” (My lack of genuine understanding is shameful.)

Multnomah River (aka Willamette R.) from bluff at U. of Portland

For a little over thirty years (from 1988 to June of 2020), the north campus of the U. of Portland held a bronze sculpture of William Clark, his black slave York*, and an unidentified Native American who had served as Clark’s guide. The sculpture showed a reverential Clark peering into the distance and pointing, with York and the Native American following his gaze. No matter that “Seekseekqua” (the object of Clark’s interest) was well-known to the Native bands who populated the area — and had been for thousands of years, Clark had “discovered” Oregon Country’s second highest mountain, which he pronounced should henceforth be called Mt. Jefferson.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, social media got busy by providing lists of potential “targets” for those wishing to express their frustration through acts of protest. When the University of Portland’s sculpture appeared on one of the protest lists, authorities removed first York’s figure, and then a day later, the Clark and Native American figures. What remains now is a pile of rocks, a list of original donors for the funding of the 1988 sculpture, and a very interesting interpretation of events. Read it yourself here:

In my mind, what is lost by the removal of the sculpture is the opportunity to supply a more accurate depiction and analysis of events and a more authentic statement about its symbolism. The sculpture should be returned. The plaque that accompanies it, however, should be refashioned to echo the historical truth.

*Like most sons of plantation owners, as a boy, William had been given a black slave — similar in age — who would serve as a companion and valet. Because York was not only trustworthy, but showed exceptional promise as a wilderness “survivalist”, he was deemed a creditable candidate for the cross-country Corps of Discovery. It didn’t hurt that he was tall and powerfully built, a reassuring presence in the expedition’s camp. Despite York’s contributions to the enterprise, he was not rewarded with manumission (release from slavery) for several years. (The record is unclear as to precisely when it happened, just that it is likely to have occurred before 1832, nearly two decades after the expedition.)

Read about York here.