They were to study the indigenous peoples, study their warfare, languages, political structure, and economic relationships a Inong other tribes and Europeans.It is during Lewis and Clark’s negotiations with the Indians that York’s contributions to the expedition are most noted in the journals.The Arikaras practiced ritual cannibalism of their fallen enemies, but that was a far cry from consuming village youth.
Among the Great Plains Indians, especially the Arikaras, Mandans, and the Hidatsas, York was a curiosity, fascinating and at times frightening, possessing special spiritual powers.
Among the Arikaras York became the center of attraction, being both attracted and terrified by his size and blackness.
Yet, in the end, his experiences were fleeting, no lasting greatness gained.
Although eventually freed, he died a poor and miserable man.
His description in contemporary writings, expedition journals, and letters range from “slave/servant” to a man of spiritual force possessing “big medicine.” As an individual York had a good sense of humor, established himself as a passionate caregiver, and demonstrated excehent frontier skills in hunting and scouting.
Physically, Ambrose describes York as a large, very strong, agile, and athletic individual of very dark complexion.
No single individual within the expedition brought more attention among Indians than York.
In the conduct of affairs among the Indians, York at times was more important to Lewis and Clark in successful negotiations than any of the trade goods or technological wonders could avail.
Clark notes in his letter that he sent back home from the Mandan vhlage on the returning keelboat, that York was sending two buffalo robes back downriver, one for “his wife and one for Ben.” In fact letters written by Clark to his brother Jonathan reveals that York not only had a wife (a slave who lived in the Louisville area), but also possibly had a family.(4) On the Corps of Discovery set out on its exploration of the nation’s newly acquired lands and beyond.
Its mission so precisely dictated by President Jefferson, directs this body of men to explore, establish boundaries, study and record the flora/fauna and topography of the land, and “‘, seek a water route to the Pacific.