Lewis and Clark State Historic Site
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Unknown Lewis and Clark Expedition History Unfolds at the Camp River Dubois
Reenactor and historican Richard Ford gave visitors his impression of Clark's slave, York, during 'Point of Departure' at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.
by Bob Moore
© 2003, Southwest Illinois News
HARTFORD, IL, (www.slfp.com), May 12, 2003 - Nearly 200 years ago, Captain Meriwether Lewis and John Clark established a winter encampment in the Illinois country. Camp River Dubois, located near the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, was a military camp where about forty recruited men were trained for the expedition.
A series of special programs commemorating the Bicentennial of the Point of Departure was launched, May 10, at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, near Hartford, IL. Reenactors spent the day performing marching drills, manual labor, cooking, showing medical supplies, quilting, woodcarving and story telling.
Reenactor and historican Richard Ford, portrayed York, Clark's slave. In an interview, Ford described how York played a very important role in the expedition.
"He was the anything and everything kind of guy," stated Ford. "He hunted and did scouting for the expedition and was really one of the main work forces of the expedition. He was also used to negotiate with the Indian tribes and traded goods such as meat and supplies."
Ford commented that York made it possible for the expedition to get past many tribes who didn't trust the Europeans. "They had never seen a black person before and they were afraid of him because they thought he had special powers. When York realized this, he would play along and pretend that he was a wild man that captured by Clark," he said.
"It was a common practice for many Indians to put charcol as warrior paint on their faces. So when they discovered that York was an actual person, they were surprised. They kind of admired him. It was so strange to see somebody like that," said Ford. "They called him Big Medicine because of his size. He was kind of tall and heavy set. He was strong and that has been documented," confirmed Ford.
"This is the first time I've done this role," stated Ford. "I have studied black military history from the American Revolution on through World War II. The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site asked me to give my impression of York and provided some research and documentation background. I don't like to do impressions and living history until I can educate myself on the subject,"
Ford, who has always had a love of history, was intrigued with York. "Most of us were never told that there were any blacks on the expedition," he said. "So we want to highlight the fact of how important York was to the expedition and not just in the role of doing menial tasks. He was a full member and not just a slave."
(L. to R.) DeeAnn Deles, age 13, portraying a Cherokee Indian named Nawesani and her mother, Kathy portraying a character who is half-French, half-Cherokee, demonstrated open hearth cooking for visitors at Camp River Dubois.
When asked what happened to York after the expedition, Ford commented that York did eventually get his freedom.
"Clark gave him a wagon and sixteen horses. York decided to start a cottage business transporting goods from Louisville, Kentucky to Richmond, Virginia. Both Clark and York were born in Richmond. According to Clark, that business wasn't so successful," said Ford.
"Some say York passed away in Kentucky and others say that he went back West to live with the Indians. Although he was free, that still didn't make him equal at that time. My interpretation of York is that if he did go back West, it was simply because of the way he was treated by Indians. He was treated like a god out there," stated Ford.
South of the visitor's center, reenactors performed daily military routines including drill demonstrations, marching and inspections. Others demonstrated daily chores including open hearth cooking.
"We portray characters from the 1700s, stated Kathy Deles. "I portray a character who is half-French, half-Indian. My daughter, DeeAnn, age 13, who is actually three-quarters Cherokee Indian and one quarter French, has adopted more of the Indian ways. She goes by the name of Nawesani, which means 'Little Flower' in Cherokee.
The connection with the name is that my great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian that was force-marched from South Carolina to Oklahoma in the 'Trail of Tears'. Her Indian name was Little Flower. Her Christian name was Elizabeth Margaret Mary," said Deles.
The Lewis and Clark Visitors Center is administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and is located along Illinois Route 3 at the southern edge of Hartford, just north of I-270. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 618-251-5811.
Reenators demonstrated daily chores near a replica of a log building at Camp River Dubois.
Reenators performed daily military routines including drill demonstrations, marching and inspections for visitors at Camp River Dubois.
(L. to R.) Reenactors Jean and Charles Buie, Pleasant Plains, IL, demonstrated sewing and woodcarving.
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