York: Terra Incognita—Lewis & Clark’s permanent memorial to York—honors a key member of the Corps of Discovery too long ignored by history.
This powerful sculpture by the world-renowned artist Alison Saar helps Lewis & Clark College remember an enslaved man who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A crucial contributor to the Corps of Discovery’s success, York shared in none of the fame and fortune enjoyed by other members of the corps after the journey concluded and was denied his freedom by his enslaver, William Clark.
The York memorial project began with Charles Neal JD ’07—at the time a student at Lewis & Clark Law School—and a question about the Black slave who was 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? Dedicated on May 8, 2010, 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.
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. “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 former director of the college’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Links for additional information:
- “On the Lewis & Trail: Law Student Sets Out to Memorialize the Expedition’s Black Man,” The Oregonian (as republished at Collegnews.org)
- “The Slave Who Went With Them,” Time magazine
- York biography, PBS
- “Hasan Davis portrays York, Black Explorer,” Hasan Davis website
- “Searching for York,” Oregon Public Broadcasting
- “Interpretations of York’s Character and His Role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” Darrell M. Millner, Oregon Historical Quarterly
“Q&A with York Memorial Project Chair Linda Tesner”
June 24, 2008
“York Statue to be Unveiled Commencement Weekend”
Pioneer Log Student Newspaper
Nov 13, 2009