I live in Montana and here, as in some other parts of the United States, the story of Lewis and Clark is part of the local ethos. The truth and the fiction of the Corps of Discovery is in the soil here. When Philemon was recently in the lectionary, I thought about York. York was enslaved by Captain William Clark- treated as property and passed down from Clark’s father, John. York traveled with the men who volunteered to go on the mission across the Louisiana Purchase, but he was not offered the opportunity to volunteer. He was forced to travel with Clark.
York did the same work as all of the other men along the arduous trek. His body was used as a tool to gain the “respect” and attention of the Native Americans (the first Americans) that the Corps met along the way. He was able to vote at Ft. Clatsop, along with the other men and Sacajawea, about where to stay. It was there, on the Oregon coast, that York began to know that he would not return to the same acclaim as the other men. He would return to the full realities of enslavement, if they had at all been tempered during the travels.
The Journey of York: The Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a lovely picture book, suitable for about ages 10 and up, about York’s story. With research into Lewis and Clark’s journals, the book tells a little about York’s experience both as an enslaved person and then on the trek with the Corps of Discovery. While the book is not explicit in the horrors of slavery, it does make it explicit that York was not offered a chance to “choose” or “volunteer” for the trip and he did leave his family behind. The book ends with the ambiguity of what happened at the end of York’s life. There is no clear evidence that William Clark freed York, even though York asked repeatedly.
I am using this space to draw attention to this book for several reasons. The first is that when I learned about this book, I immediately requested it for my local library and the librarian ordered it right away. Remember that your library is a resource and your requests make a difference. I may also buy this book for my house, but I am happy that it will be on the shelves in my local library- alongside books about Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark.
Secondly, remember that representation in children’s books matter. I never heard about York until I was an adult and reading about Lewis and Clark. My son learned about him at age 9 because York was mentioned in a documentary, in that the poll taken at Clatsop was the first recorded time that the votes of an enslaved person and a female person were counted alongside the votes of white male people. I am so grateful that this book came out this year and can be read by many more children, so that York, like Sacajawea and other Native Americans, can become part of this tale.
Point 2.5 is that you may have absolutely no interest in Lewis and Clark, but there are probably First Nations or native peoples in your area. Do you know their stories? Are they taught fairly in your schools? Do you reflect on the legends, habits, or information about your local history alongside your theological work in the community?
For me, asking for this book to be in the library, sharing it with my children, and promoting it is part of my work as a baptized person and a theological leader in my community. I feel called to learn the truths of local and national history, to pay attention to on-going ramifications, and to ponder the moral implications of what was “legal” at one time, though not ethical.
The Journey of York might not be a good fit in your local library, but I feel certain that there is a likely local parallel that you can use your influence to make available for the sake of community growth and learning.
The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
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