The Slave Who Went to Montana
"Every human possesses a natural right to be his own master, so long as he does not deny that same right to others. Most people take that truism for granted today but it wasn’t the governing rule of the past."
In the flood plain of the Missouri River four miles south of Townsend in Broadwater County, York’s Islands look much the way they did when the Lewis & Clark expedition gazed upon them more than two centuries ago. The explorers named them for a man who accompanied them. His presence was the only connection Montana ever had with slavery.
“York” was the expedition’s sole black member. He was the first African American to cross the continent, the first African American to see the Pacific Ocean, and the first African American to set foot in Montana. He also belonged to William Clark himself, who had inherited him as property from his father.
This may conjure visions of a man in chains, dragged along for who-knows-what-reason at the tail end of a wagon train. That’s pure fiction. York “participated fully in the journey and contributed in significant ways to its success,” notes historian Darrell M. Millner. He possessed a rifle and shot wild game. His complexion awed the local Indians, often facilitating communication and cooperation with them. Though he might easily have run away, he chose not to. Because he was a slave, however, York was the only man on the journey who sadly never got paid a wage.
Whatever happened to York in the years after the expedition is a little murky, but some credible accounts suggest he lived out his life with the Crow Indians in Wyoming.
Montana is fortunate that its brush with slavery was both minimal and short-lived. In any form—mild or brutal—it can never be excused or justified. As Americans, however, Montanans deserve to know its history and context and the country’s role in it.
Every human possesses a natural right to be his own master, so long as he does not deny that same right to others. Most people take that truism for granted today but it wasn’t the governing rule of the past. Few people who have ever lived on this planet were truly free; most were either outright slaves or were serfs or subjects who lived in constant fear of tyrants. In world history, freedom is the exception, and mostly a recent one.
The process of ending legalized human bondage wasn’t a flip of a light switch, on one moment and off in an effortless second. We had to work at it, long and hard. Ideas and customs had to change first before policy changed, and that’s the way progress always happens. Along the way, an appalling number of people paid the ultimate price to extinguish slavery. Even then, the struggle against Jim Crow persisted for decades afterwards.
In hindsight, it’s easy in the smug comfort of our 21st Century blessings to frown on the country’s Founders for not freeing everybody in one fell swoop. But none of us even knows whether, if he had been born in, say, 1700, he would have mustered the courage to fight for anybody’s freedom. At that time, slavery was the accepted norm all over the world. America is not exceptional because we had it for a time; if anything, we are exceptional because of the lengths to which we went to get rid of it.
As late as 1830, according to Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, 3,776 free American blacks owned 12,907 fellow blacks as slaves. Moreover, in 1860, Native American tribes owned some 8,000 black slaves; the Cherokee Indians alone possessed about 4,600.
America’s Founders proclaimed the revolutionary principle that “all men are created equal.” They compromised for the sake of union but many of them knew that the intellectual seeds they planted would eventually end slavery, one way or the other.
Thankfully, it did end. That’s a fact that would surely please York, I am certain.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.