A member of the famed Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery may have been the first black man to cast a vote in America, long before blacks won the right to vote with the 1869 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.
The year was 1806 and members of the expedition had to choose a site to build winter quarters near Astoria, Oregon. The black man’s name was York. He was William Clark’s slave, but he had proven himself more than three-fifths of a man during this three-year discovery of the unchartered American west so he was granted the right to vote.
Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian who led the party through the Bitterroot Mountains, was also allowed to vote. Ironically, women, even those who meant so much to our country’s history, would not be granted the right to vote in a federal election until 1920.
|Marvin Jefferson as York. (Photo courtesy of Alan Thompson)
Marvin Jefferson, a New Jersey educator and actor, shared these stories at the Ohio Chautauqua held last week in Rossford. Jefferson portrayed York in a one-man show delivered on a sparse stage. His performance was riveting, his monolog infused with emotion, intelligence and bravado. York, we come to learn, became a trusted and valuable member of the 29-man team which ventured into the unknown. So much so he was entrusted with a rifle, although it was illegal for a slave to handle a gun. He also proved to be an emissary among the Indians who had never seen a black man. They called him “Big Medicine.”
The Corps of Discovery was championed by President Thomas Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark were commissioned to explore the unchartered west, document the flora and fauna and locate the mythical Northwest Passage, a water route to the Pacific. Americans soon followed in their footsteps and settled the west.
After the expedition returned to civilization, York lived at Clark’s Kentucky plantation where he hoped to rekindle his marriage to a woman who lived on a neighboring plantation. However, when York’s wife was sold and shipped to Mississippi, York asked for his freedom to follow her, or, at worst, to be sold to a neighboring plantation owner. Clark refused. When Clark took a job in St. Louis and took York with him, York’s hope to be reunited with his wife died.
The refusal and York’s change in attitude bred animosity between the two. Clark would claim York was becoming uppity and he beat him to show him his place. Eventually, Clark freed his slave, but it wasn’t until some 10 years later.
Al Thompson, a retired history teacher, and Tim Kreps, another retired teacher, are local re-enactors. Thompson portrays Clark, Kreps portrays Lewis. Following Marvin Jefferson’s portrayal, Thompson said of his Clark, “I didn’t know I was such a jerk.”
Thompson, who had compiled an extensive unit on the expedition while a teacher, bicycled the 3,800-mile Lewis and Clark trail in 2005 documenting various points of interest for his reenactment presentations.
While Thompson gained added insight into York’s character at the Chautauqua, hundreds of other visitors to Rossford were also treated to a glimpse of Ohio history as seen through the eyes of four other individuals: Margaret Blennerhassett, a woman at the center of the so-called “Burr Conspiracy” involving vice president Aaron Burr; Chief John Logan, an American Indian who was a proponent of peace with the white man until his family was murdered; John Chapman, the frontier preacher known as Johnny Appleseed, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero who defeated the British fleet on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Each actor portraying these historical figures presented a monolog about the character’s personal life on the Ohio frontier, then answered audience questions.
The Ohio Chautauqua was presented by the Ohio Humanities Council and was entitled “When Ohio was the Western Frontier.” The Rossford Convention and Visitors Bureau deserves credit for bringing the program to Northwest Ohio. The five-day event also included workshops and musical performances including one by Oregon’s Choraliers.
We are in a unique period of refection for Northwest Ohio history. We are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 in which the Battle of Lake Erie turned the tide in our country’s favor and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The first Medal of Honor recipients, members of Andrews Raiders, were from Northwest Ohio. Local historical societies and museums will host a number of programs this year and through 2015. These re-enactors can bring history alive for you and your children.
The Ohio Chautauqua moves on to Coshocton. If you missed it in Rossford and want to take a day trip, go to ohiohumanities.org to learn more. Interested in the Lewis and Clark presentation by Al Thompson and Tim Kreps? Email Thompson at
or call him at 419-517-3438.