In 1839, a fur trapper published an account of his five years in the West, with the grandiose title, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard: A Native of Clearfield County, Pa. Who Spend Five Years Trapping for Furs, Trading with the Indians, &c., &c., of the Rocky Mountains: Written by Himself. In the midst of Leonard’s rambling observations, there is one astonishing tidbit. Leonard writes about an encounter he had in a Crow Indian village in 1832, in what is now Wyoming.
The first stream we came to on the east side is called Bighorn river — down which stream we travelled for some days, until we came to their village situated at the mouth of Stinking river. In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark — with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since – which is about ten or twelve years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately. This is the custom of many of the chiefs.
The “negro man” whom Leonard describes could only have been York, the slave who accompanied his master William Clark on the Lewis & Clark expedition. There is only one problem. The same year, William Clark gave an interview to journalist and writer Washington Irving, in which he talked about the fate of a number of members of the Corps of Discovery. After several miserable years of conflict after the expedition, Clark had finally set York free, setting him up as a wagon driver in Tennessee. According to Irving, William Clark provided this account of York’s last days:
He could not get up early enough in the morning—his horses were ill-kept—two died—the others grew poor. He sold them, was cheated—entered into service—fared ill. Damn this freedom, said York, I have never had a happy day since I got it. He determined to go back to his old master—set off for St. Louis, but was taken with the cholera in Tennesee & died.
The discrepancy between the two reports has sparked speculation about York’s fate. There is no primary documentary evidence about what happened to York, save the accounts of these two men. Leonard reports seeing the “negro chief” again a couple of years later, in 1834. Yet it seems likely that Clark would have known about the fate of his former slave. Could he have been wrong?
Larry E. Morris’s great book, The Fate of the Corps, shines some light on the mystery. Although it would have been possible for York to have gone back up the Missouri once he was freed from bondage, it is significant that York’s name appears nowhere in the considerable documentation about the fur trade. No one else mentions having seen or encountered him west of the Mississippi River. However, there were two black men who do fit the description given by Leonard, and who did live among the Crow Indians for a time: Edward Rose and James Beckwourth.
Edward Rose left no account of his life, and what is known of him was reported by others. He was the son of a white trader and a mixed-blood black and Cherokee woman. Rose worked as a guide, interpreter and hunter for the most prominent trading companies of his time, including the Missouri Fur Company of Manuel Lisa, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company of William Ashley, and the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. His wilderness skills and mental and physical stamina were remarked upon by everyone who encountered him. Rose lived among the Crows for several years, was fluent in their language, and was renowned as a chief and a fierce warrior. This seems to fit Leonard’s description of the man he met. But, as Morris reports, Rose was killed in an ambush by the Arikara in the winter of 1832-33, which rules him out as the man Leonard reported seeing for the second time in 1834.
Which leaves us with James Beckwourth. Beckwourth was a mulatto born to a white father and a slave mother in the 1798. By 1827, Beckwourth crossed the Mississippi at Saint Louis and made his way west. There he earned a great reputation as an explorer, translator, fur trapper, warrior, and hunter. Beckwourth is credited with discovering a mountain pass through Sierra Nevada, which is known as Beckwourth Pass. A true trailblazer, Beckwourth served as a scout for General John C. Fremont and helped found the town of Pueblo, Colorado.
However, it is also known of Beckwourth that he did tend to exaggerate a little. In 1856, Beckwourth published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (since it was dictated to another, he avoided the phrase Written by Himself). In his autobiography, Beckwourth clearly takes credit for feats accomplished by Rose. So it would not have been surprising if Beckwourth had also claimed to have been with the Lewis & Clark expedition and taken credit for York’s accomplishments.
Beckwourth lived until 1866, a legend among his fellow mountain men. He died at the Crow Indian Settlement, near Laramie, Wyoming, and was buried on an elevated platform in customary Crow fashion. As for York’s grave, no one knows.