The first black person known to enter the area that would later become North Dakota was a slave. Owned by William Clark, York accompanied Lewis and Clark during the Corps of Discovery Expedition. He was born in Virginia to slaves owned by Clark’s father, a small plantation owner. He was selected to be young William Clark’s companion. When the elder Clark passed away in 1799, Clark inherited his boyhood companion.
Large and muscular, York’s contributions would prove invaluable to the 1804 expedition. Like other members, he hunted, scouted, and built shelters, but he also proved important diplomatically, as the Indians were fascinated by the color of his skin, which several of the Indians attempted to rub off, believing it to be a type of paint. York’s differences made him very popular among the Indians, who, far from ostracizing him, respected his strength and enjoyed his sense of humor. Once, in a flash flood on the Missouri River, York even saved Clark’s life. By all accounts, York enjoyed his time on the expedition; he was allowed to vote and carry a rife as a full member of the group, things that he would never have been allowed to do back in Virginia. But when the expedition ended in 1806, York was forced to re-enter the world of slavery. Although popular accounts report that Clark freed York in 1806, historians now believe this to be untrue, with his freedom actually coming several years later.
As reported in yesterday’s Datebook, the question of slavery delayed the creation of Dakota Territory in the late 1850s, as the southern Democratic majority of Congress blocked the entrance of northern and western states and territories. In 1862, the first governor of Dakota Territory, William Jayne, issued an inaugural message to the Dakota Legislature, urging, “I would recommend to your body that you pass a law prohibiting, for all time to come, in this territory, slavery…I hope that the free air of Dakota may never be polluted, or her virgin soil pressed by the footprint of a slave.”
Nearly four years later, on this date in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Bernson, Sara L. and Robert J. Eggers. 1977. “Black People in South Dakota History,” South Dakota State Historical Society 7(3): 241-270.
Lass, William E. 1991. “The First Attempt to Organize Dakota Territory,” in Centennial West: Essays on the Northern Tier States: pp. 4-28. The University of Washington Press.
Risjord, Norman K. 2012. Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains. University of Nebraska: Lincoln.