Monument Of Black Explorer York Discovered In Portland Park

History Facts

Last October, a statue of “scowling" Harvey Scott was toppled from its pedestal in Portland's Mount Tabor Park. Although I don't support vandalism, this wasn't a big loss: The conservative newspaper editor was a kind of a jerk. He opposed women's suffrage and public high schools, which he considered a “luxury" that would serve only as a “haven for drones" and “undermine self-reliance and individualism." Scott's sister, Abigail Duniway, is more impressive. She successfully advocated for women's suffrage in Oregon and was the first woman to register to vote in the state.

Scott's statue was replaced this weekend with a bust of York, the first Black person to cross North America and reach the Pacific. No one knows how the bust got there. Adena Long, the director of Portland's parks bureau, calls it “guerrilla public art" — presumably she spells out the word “guerrilla" to avoid confusion — and a “pleasant surprise."

The New York Times reports:

York, [Long] said in an interview, is "a figure that in my mind that we need to do a better job of proactively and thoughtfully celebrating."

Ms. Long said that she was not aware of any message about the bust from those responsible, but that it would be allowed to stand so long as it does not pose any safety risks, in line with a bureau policy regarding tributes. "We're hopeful the artists will make themselves known so we can have a conversation, but it will stay," she said.

If you have no idea who York is, that's why we have a 1619 Project. York was William Clark's "lifelong body servant" whom Clark's father “willed to him," like property with a pulse.

From the will of John Clark III, hereafter referred to as that “old racist bastard":

I give and bequeath to my son Edmund... three negroes, to wit Peter (Vegas child), and Scipio and Darathy (Rose's children)... I give and bequeath to my son William... one negro man named York, also old York and his wife Rose, and their two children, Nancy and Juba; also three old negroes, Tame, Cupid and Harry.

A family is not a bequest.

William Clark described York as his “playmate." York accompanied Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Clark mentions York only a few times in his personal journal, but it seems like he saved their white asses quite often. Contrary to stereotype, York was a strong swimmer and helped search for expedition members caught in a flash flood. He hunted, provided medical services, and did hard physical labor, although Clark didn't appear that grateful. After York and a small party descended the Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, Clark noted that "York was nearly exhausted by the heat, thirst and fatigue ... this is because York is too fat and unaccustomed to walk so fast."

According to journal entries and oral tradition, York served an invaluable role in diplomatic relations with native people the expedition encountered.

On October 9, 1804, expedition member Sargeant John Ordway recorded in his journal: "the greatest curiosity to [the natives] was York Capt. Clark's Black man. all the nation made a great deal of him."

This wasn't always pleasant. York reportedly pulled a knife on a Hidatsa chief who tried to rub the “paint" off his skin. (It wasn't paint. It was all York.)

York prevented the expedition party from starving to death on the return trip when he personally traded whatever crap they had left for supplies from Native Americans that ensured the expedition's survival. This would make a great movie starring me ... or, you know, Michael B. Jordan if you wanted people to see it.

Not surprisingly, York preferred even the limited freedom he enjoyed on the expedition to slavery. When the expedition was successfully completed, York requested his freedom, which Clark repeatedly denied because owning human beings was apparently a tough habit to break. Clark preferred instead to “break" York: According to his own letters to his older brother, Clark "trounced" York, imprisoned him, and later hired him out to a more "severe" master in Louisville, Kentucky. Yes, it could actually get worse for enslaved Black people than regular beatings and imprisonment.

Clark told Washington Irving in 1832 that he freed York but York immediately missed singing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." He failed at business because of his sad little Black brain and died in Tennessee while trying to return to a life of bondage with Clark. This story doesn't seem entirely on the up and up.

It's believed that York died of cholera in St. Louis, but no one knows for sure.

"There's absolutely no provable definitive account of his fate," said Darrell Millner, a professor emeritus of Black studies at Portland State University.

York was a man who deserved more than bondage in life and obscurity in death. So much Black blood stains American history, but the York memorial in Mount Tabor Park makes it at least slightly harder to look away.

[New York Times/ Oregon Encyclopedia]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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