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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 4

July 4, 2013

Day 4: Charlottesville, Virginia: Slavery in the Young Nation

One of the most important parts of our four day journey into the era of revolution was our encounter with slavery. Every house tour we took spoke about slavery: Jefferson called living with the institution of slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: one could neither safely hold on nor let go. The story of liberty was everywhere haunted by human bondage. Words like irony, paradox, contradiction and evil followed us.

In Charlottesville we stopped to examine this wall which still bears the unsuccessfully washed out marks indicating the name of auction house that sold slaves right on this sidewalk. Standing at an angle, the words can still be read and the history imagined.

Charlottesville-20130513-02457 copy

At Monticello we took the “slavery tour” along Mulberry Street. At Ash-Lawn (home of James Monroe) we could enter the slave house. The home of George Washington (one of August’s heroes) in Mt. Vernon was run on slave labor. But this was most powerfully brought home to us at Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

Inside Montpelier, August stood transfixed in the room where James Madison wrote the Constitution of the United States of America. He spent 15 minutes with intense concentration silently reading Madison’s words inscribed on the walls. We then looked out the windows Madison would have been looking out as he imagined the shape of this new country – and all we could see was land. In the distance were the Blue Ridge Mountains which we had hiked over the weekend. And beyond them, we knew, and he knew, was more land.

But what this view to the West did not allow us to see were the quarters for a hundred slaves which stood not a few hundred yards from the house to the South East. The proximity and intimacy was startling. Everywhere we went we heard that the house slaves had it better than the field slaves, but at Montpelier  there is an archeological dig underway that is challenging this picture. A highlight of our visit was the opportunity to get a personal tour of the dig and their discoveries.


Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery included as black slave named York. He had been William Clark’s personal servant since Clark was twelve years old. York had no choice about participating in the expedition, but he proved invaluable to the success of the trip. He carried a gun and hunted bison with the other men, he collected greens which saved the crew from scurvy, and he was the first black man ever seen by most of the native peoples encountered on the trip. When the crew finally reached the Pacific Ocean, both he and Sacajawea cast a vote for where to build a fort, despite the fact that he was a slave and she an Indian woman.

Upon their return, the members of the expedition received double pay and land for their contributions to the Corps. York received nothing. In fact, he remained the slave of William Clark for another ten years before being given his freedom. These post-expedition years were clearly difficult for both of them, as the legacy of racism and slavery is for our nation founded on the idea of liberty.

Laurence Pringle has written,

…the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition reveal some important truths about York. Like the other explorers, York endured extreme heat and cold, suffered injuries and illness, risked his life many times, and contributed to the success of an expedition that is still considered the greatest in United States history. He was both a slave and an American hero. In 2001, long after his death, York was promoted to the rank of honorary sergeant, Regular Army, by President William Jefferson Clinton.


Recommended Reading: Laurence Pringle has authored a book for children called American Slave, American Hero: York of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Illistrations by Conelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. (from which I took the illustration above).

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.


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