OC York

Berea’s Davis plays slave ‘York’
who accompanied Lewis & Clark
on historic expedition

York’s presence with Lewis & Clark
needs to be put into perspective.

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. – Hasan Davis overcame many obstacles, including a learning disability, to become a professional storyteller, performance artist and poet. His success sets him apart as a motivational speaker, one who speaks directly from the heart.
Davis currently portrays a character for the Kentucky Humanities Council named York. York was Capt. William Clark’s life-long slave companion and accompanied Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their famous 1803-1806 expedition to the Pacific Ocean in search of a Northwest Passage and subsequent return to the East.
At 8 p.m. Friday, March 21, Davis will present York to the Oldham County Historical Society. The Society will hold its quarterly dinner meeting at 7 p.m., with Davis’ performance to follow.

Hasan Davis

Hasan Davis portrays
York, the slave of
Capt. Clark.

“York is my second Humanities Council character,” said Davis, who lives in Berea, Ky. “The first was A.A. Burleigh, a Civil War soldier and first black graduate of Berea College.” Burleigh was a member of the Union army and stationed at Camp Nelson, Ky.
Davis hasn’t always taken such an active interest in history. “It was very difficult to get excited about history growing up. The only time I could see people who looked like me was when we talked about slavery or about how we were saved from slavery by the good folks in the North.”
Adept at speaking, Davis attended Berea College and received his bachelor’s degree in oral communications. He is also a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law.
Based upon his past experiences as a teen, Davis began his own business, “Empowerment Solutions.” He works with youth through schools, community agencies and juvenile facilities, encouraging them to aspire to their full potential.
Davis remains busy with his business and his portrayal of York.
This year marks the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark journey of which Davis said, “There has been little interest and or knowledge of York and his contribution to the success of that mission. York’s presence at that point in our nation’s history needs to be put into perspective with the others who have been heralded as heroes of a nation.”
Many events will be held concerning the bicentennial, including a re-creation of the actual route. In preparation for the bicentennial, Davis said he has participated in the Lewis and Clark National training academy in Washington State, Kansas and North Dakota. He has been invited to Harper’s Ferry, among other events.
It is important to Davis to accurately portray what he termed “the heart of York.” James J. Holmberg, curator of Special Collections for the Filson Club in Louisville, aided Davis as a consultant for the necessary research to portray York accurately.
“Clark and York traveled extensively,” said Holmberg. He said that because York was Clark’s body servant, he probably had no choice as to whether or not he would accompany his master on the expedition.
“York could provide more that simple company,” said Holmberg. From the journals and letters kept by Lewis and Clark, it has been determined that York accompanied the other men on work assignments, hunted, scouted, cooked, swam (several men couldn’t), and therefore did not serve Clark full time as a servant but became more of an equal member of the group. The Indians referred to York as “Big Medicine,” said Holmberg.
Not much is known about York. He was close in age to William Clark, having been born in Virginia. Clark’s father, John Clark, bequeathed him to Clark in a will dated July 24, 1799. At the time of their departure on the 1803 expedition, York and William Clark lived together in Clarksville, Indiana territory, across the Ohio River from Louisville.
On Oct. 26, the pair departed from the Falls of the Ohio with Meriwether Lewis, Clark’s Newfoundland dog, Seaman, and a group of men who would earn the distinction in history as “the Corp of Discovery.” His presence on the expedition led the 34-year-old York to become the first black man to cross the continent north of Mexico.
Although York had been a vital part of this group of explorers who traveled close to 8,000 miles, he returned home to assume his former role as slave. York asked Clark for his freedom or the chance to be hired out near Louisville to be closer to his wife, who had a different owner.
Ten years after the expedition, York was granted his freedom. York later died of cholera in Tennessee.

• For more information on Davis, call the Oldham County Historical Society at (502) 222-0826.

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