'Forgotten hero' of Lewis-Clark expedition brought to life in Port Townsend
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Historian Bob Bartlett of Spokane portrays York, the slave who set out on the Lewis and Clark expedition — and who, according to one theory, returned to Montana to live with the Crow tribe — in Port Townsend this Friday.

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — He was born a slave but lived as a free man, walking and canoeing some 7,000 miles from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean with two of America's most famous explorers.

This man was also invisible, said Robert Bartlett, the Eastern Washington University professor who will bring York, the sole African-American on the Lewis and Clark expedition, to life this Friday.

“York: The Forgotten Hero” delves into York's life after his journey with William Clark and Meriwether Lewis.

In a 40-minute performance to start at 7 p.m., Bartlett covers more than two years of York's fate — one that Bartlett believes brought him back to Montana.

Admission is by donation to the program, part of the Jefferson County Historical Society's First Friday lecture series at Port Townsend's historic City Hall, 540 Water St.

“We thought that bringing the story of York to Port Townsend would be a good way to celebrate the 210th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, which led to the Lewis and Clark expedition and, eventually, to the settlement of Jefferson County,” said Bill Tennent, the historical society's executive director.

“[Bartlett] drew a full house when he portrayed Thurgood Marshall here a few years ago, so we expect a good turnout.”

There's no definitive answer to the question of what happened to York after Lewis and Clark's return, Tennent said.

But Bartlett, a West Virginia-born scholar who came west first to study and then teach at Gonzaga University, will present his findings.

They differ from what one might find in a Wikipedia entry on York. Accounts typically say he died circa 1832 in a cholera outbreak in Tennessee, though no tombstone nor record exists, Bartlett noted.

But York ending up there doesn't make sense, the historian said; a black man in the South in the 1830s could be picked up and sold as a slave. In any case, York was forbidden to associate with whites or with blacks, free or otherwise.

In Search of York

In his research, Bartlett found Robert Betts' book In Search of York, which presents evidence for a scenario that Bartlett finds far more plausible.

York met a fur trader named Mackinney, a man who wanted to travel west to the Rocky Mountains and seek his fortune.

Since York had been through that territory, he made a deal with Mackinney, and the two left for Montana.

“Here's where the story gets really interesting,” Bartlett said. “They end up in Crow country, so at that point, York and Mackinney split. York stays and becomes an adopted member of the Crow tribe.

“This is in the records kept by fur traders,” who wrote of meeting an old black man living with the Crows.

“He was known as a black Indian,” said Bartlett. York, he said, was called “the Raven's Son.”

Bartlett acknowledges that this is only one theory about York's life, but to his mind, it makes the most sense.

Bartlett has devoted much of his career to researching those rendered invisible by mainstream historical accounts.

Bartlett, who holds a master's degree in sociology from Washington State University and a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga, has spent time in South Africa, where he learned a saying: “Never let the lion tell the giraffe's story.”

White men's history

“History is written by the victors,” Bartlett said, “and much of our history is written by white men, who tell it from their perspective.”

He hopes to inspire people to delve further, to “read and research the lived experiences of those who fall through the cracks.

“I want to make the invisible visible.”

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Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 04. 2013 5:30PM
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