- Robert Reynolds
Lewis & Clark’s newest public sculpture honors a neglected member of the Corps of Discovery.
The York memorial project began with one student, Charles Neal JD ’07, and a question about the black slave who served as a vital member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: where was York represented on the campus of the college that bears the famed explorers’ names?
The answer was, nowhere.
A third-year law student at the time, Neal committed himself to changing that, and when he was able to enlist a core of committed students and key members of the Lewis & Clark administration and faculty, the York project was born. “I thought about the indignity York felt,” Neal explained, “and I had to do everything possible to move the project forward.”
Neal—along with fellow third-year law students Eric Hevenor, Sara Bagheri, and Matthew Abosedra—approached then-President Thomas Hochstettler, who immediately embraced the idea of recognizing York. Hochstettler charged a project team with the task of building a memorial on campus. After a successful fund-raising effort, the committee went to work.
Now, three years later, the project is complete. York: Terra Incognita—Lewis & Clark’s permanent memorial to York—honors a key member of the Corps of Discovery too long ignored by history. By installing this powerful sculpture by Los Angeles artist Alison Saar, Lewis & Clark remembers a man who served on the expedition as the slave of William Clark, who became a crucial contributor to the expedition’s success—and who, after the journey ended, shared in none of the fame and fortune enjoyed by other members of the corps.
In her proposal to the York Committee, Saar wrote, “I have a personal interest in the recognition of unsung heroes, particularly those who have been overlooked due to their race or gender.” Several of her earlier sculptures have also addressed this theme.
Dedicated on May 8 at a prime location near Watzek Library, the York sculpture stands six feet tall and is mounted on an approximately two-foot-wide bronze base. Neither the physique nor the facial features of the sculpture claim to represent how York actually looked.
“Because there are no known images of York,” Saar explains, “I felt a realistic portrait would only continue to misrepresent the man.”
Partly for this reason, Saar made the sculpture’s back a focal point and a symbol of the burden borne by York during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. One of William Clark’s maps is inscribed—“scarred” might be more accurate—on the figure’s back and shoulders.
“The sculpture stands as a visual metaphor for a historic moment that we must regard more thoughtfully if we are to understand American history,” says Linda Tesner, York Committee chair and director of the college’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art. “We also hope that the York project will serve as a symbol of the college’s commitment to making Lewis & Clark a welcoming community for people from diverse backgrounds.”
To learn more about York’s historical significance and about the project’s development, click here.
Who was York?
The historical record is thin, but text fragments (from the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as well as other contemporary sources) provide some clues. Artist Alison Saar mounted these and other fragments on bronze plaques attached to boulders surrounding the York sculpture.
York and hard labor
My man york verry unwell from a violent coald and strain by carrying meet from the woods and lifting the heavy logs on the works &c.
December 28, 1805
York’s relationship with Native Americans
The graetest curiosity to them was york Captn. Clarks black man. All the nation made a great deal of him. The children would follow after him and if he turned toward them, run from him a hollow as if they were terreyfied & afraid of him.
Some of the party also told the Indians that we had a man with us who was black and had short curling hair, this had excited their curiosity very much … (and they seemed quiet as anxious to see this monster as they were to see the merchandise which we had to barter for their horses.)
August 16, 1805
York’s dry riverbed
Draw up canoes and take shelter in an old indian Lodge above the enterance of a rives which is nearly dry it has latterly been very high an spread over nearly ¼ a mile in width. Its chanel is 88 yards and in this there is not more water than could pass theough an inch auger hole. I call it Yorks dry river.
July 30, 1806
York’s treatment after the expedition
He is here, but of verry little service to me. Insolent and sulky, I gave him a severe trouncing the other day and he has much mended sence. William Clark to Jonathan Clark May 28, 1809 I did wish to do well by him – but as he has got such a notion about freedom and his emence services, that I do not expect he will be of much service to me again. I do not think with him, that his services has been so great or my situation would permit me to liberate him.
William Clark to Jonathan Clark
December 10, 1808
Gallery Mounts Exhibition of Works by Alison Saar
To view additional works by nationally known artist Alison Saar, visit the Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark this fall.
Alison Saar: Bound for Glory
September 7 to December 12
Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
York Project Committee
Lewis & Clark’s York Committee was made up of representatives from the campus and Portland communities, each person bringing a unique perspective and set of qualifications. The members were:
Linda Tesner, chair, director of the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark
Debra Beers, senior lecturer in art and head of the drawing program at Lewis & Clark
John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark and literary executor for Ralph Ellison
Parasa Chanramy BA ’10
Se-ah-dom Edmo, program coordinator for the Indigenous Ways of Knowing program at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling
Avel Gordly, former Oregon state representative and senator
Paula Hayes BS ’92
Chris Jay BS ’72, first vice president, Merrill Lynch & Co., and Lewis & Clark trustee
Darrell Millner, York historian and professor of black studies, Portland State University
Charles Neal JD ’07
Mike Rathbun, visiting assistant professor of art at Lewis & Clark
(Consulting provided by Kristin Calhoun, public art manager, Regional Arts and Culture Council of Portland.)