On The Trail of Lewis and Clark...and York

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a journey that set the stage for the country's western expansion. To celebrate what has been called "one of America's greatest stories of adventure," a national commemoration is retracing the explorers' trail.

As the spot where the expedition's two leaders, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, joined up to embark upon their journey, Louisville is one of 15 official bicentennial sites. But the area's part in this important historic event was almost overlooked--that is, until U of L graduate James Holmberg stepped in. With a determination paralleling that of the explorers to succeed in their mission, Holmberg helped convince the bicentennial commission of the area's vital role in Lewis and Clark's journey.

At the same time, noted sculptor Ed Hamilton is helping rectify a 200-year-old wrong by giving Clark's slave, York, due recognition for his role in the historic expedition. Read on to learn how these two U of L associates became involved in this exciting project.

Two Captains West

In 1803 the United States' western territory was still a great mystery to most citizens of the young nation. Talk of the West often centered around gargantuan woolly mammoths, unicorns, 7-foot-tall beavers, blue-eyed Welsh-speaking Indians and a river passageway to the Pacific Ocean.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on a mission from President Thomas Jefferson to map out the uncharted portion of his newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and discover what truly awaited "out West." Though they did not find the popular myths and legends, their landmark journey helped build a nation. Upon their return, the expedition's members were lauded for their heroic deed.

Two hundred years later, they still have their admirers. James Holmberg is one of the biggest.

"My earliest memories, even before I could read, include listening to my parents read Two Captains West and looking at the pictures," he recalls.

Photo: James Holmberg
James Holmberg

When Holmberg was only 5, his parents took the family in a Ford station wagon on a 3,000-mile journey west retracing part of the Lewis and Clark trail, camping out almost every night along the way.

"Our summers involved camping trips to national parks and battlefields and great adventures," says Holmberg, who aspired early on to work in the National Park Service. He carried this goal to U of L, first as a biology major and then history. An aversion to organic chemistry mixed with some "outstanding history professors" soon changed his mind.

"U of L history professors Leonard Curry, Mary K. Tachau and James Sutton helped bring the big picture together with their history lectures and insightful knowledge," he says.

The rest is all history as Holmberg moved on to graduate school and a master's in history, gained in 1985. A stint in the University Archives with William Morison and Tom Owen helped lead to a position at the Filson Historical Society in 1982, where Holmberg is now curator of special collections.

Dear Brother

Portraits from Kentucky's past, painted by the state's greatest artists, greet Holmberg daily as he enters his Filson office, located in a century-old mansion on Louisville's Third Street. One of these, by Joseph H. Bush, depicts William Clark. Across the city at Locust Grove hangs a portrait of another great historic figure, William's brother George Rogers Clark.

The two are unique in American history, Holmberg says.

"George gave the new nation its 'first' West with his Revolutionary War heroics, gaining control of the land between the Ohio River and Great Lakes," he says. "His youngest brother, William, opened up the 'second' West beyond the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

"These two brothers, born 18 years apart, were crucial players in shaping the manifest destiny of America."

The Louisville area plays a vital role not only in the Clark family history (the family settled here in the early part of the 18th century), but also in the epic quest of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

When President Jefferson assigned Lewis to lead a $2,500 mission to explore the West, Lewis asked friend and former commanding officer William Clark to join him. Lewis set out from Pittsburgh on a keelboat with a party of 11 and his dog. He met up with Clark on the shores of the Ohio at Louisville on Oct. 14, 1803.

The two spent the next few days recruiting men and making final preparations for what was to become known as the Corps of Discovery, and then, on Oct. 26, left to begin exploring the newly purchased land to the west.

If it were not for Holmberg and other strong voices from the area, the national bicentennial commemoration may well have leapfrogged from Monticello to St. Louis, generally credited as the expedition's jumping-off point. As founding president of the Falls of the Ohio Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee and a member of state and national bicentennial committees, Holmberg gained political support for local plans.

"We hammered home our role in the eastern legacy of the trip," Holmberg says. As a result, he adds, "The bicentennial will connect all the dots from Monticello to the Pacific."

Louisville will be one of 15 official national bicentennial sites and host the bicentennial's second national signature event on Oct. 14. The event will include participation by the Shawnee National United Remnant Band of Ohio, historical reenactments, exhibits and other activities.

Holmberg's vast knowledge of Lewis and Clark and the details of their expedition proved a great asset in convincing the bicentennial commission to include Louisville in its plans. He considers one Filson collection especially important to his work--six letters by Clark and one by Lewis written during their expedition. The Clark letters are the most held by any single institution and among the most significant.

Another Filson collection deepens Holmberg's insight into Clark, the expedition and Louisville's early years. An extraordinary series of letters to Clark's eldest brother, Jonathan, written over a 19-year period, provides a look at events long buried in time. Clark's descendants discovered the letters, which each begin "Dear Brother," among family papers in a Louisville attic in 1988. Presented to the Filson, the letters were like a gold mine to a curator such as Holmberg.

They are the single best-known source about Clark and helped Holmberg achieve his fame as an expert on the expedition and its members. He wrote the epilogue for the revised edition of Robert Betts' In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark and is the editor of Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark, published last year by the Filson and Yale University Press.

His scholarly stature also gained him a spot on the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation board, where he is completing his second term as chair of the publishing committee.

It's obvious that Holmberg doesn't consider his work "work." Instead, it's all a matter of following a childhood ambition to learn everything he can about his heroes and their era.

The Clark letters reveal fascinating details, Holmberg says, about the life and times of key people during a remarkable period in history.

"I'm a lucky guy," he adds with a grin.

Given his role in helping Louisville earn its place on the Lewis and Clark celebration map, the city might say the same thing.

A decade after the Lewis and Clark expedition set out, Francis Scott Key penned what was to become the United States' national anthem, saluting "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Sadly York, the slave who matched the steps of William Clark over the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Ocean, would find freedom a long, hard road, despite his many and vital contributions to the journey.

Two hundred years later, historians are now trying to make amends and give York due recognition. It's fallen to noted sculptor Ed Hamilton, a 1969 graduate of the Louisville School of Art, a U of L art student in the 1970s and 2003 adopted alumnus, to put a "face" on York--something he's devoted the last three years to doing. That's the same length of time spent on the expedition itself.

The nationally acclaimed sculptor was the obvious answer to the question of who could best "capture" York when James Holmberg and the area bicentennial committee approached him about doing a heroic-size bronze of York. The city of Louisville realized the opportunity to honor this man who called Louisville home for most of his life. Former Mayor Dave Armstrong and the Board of Aldermen decided that Hamilton's York would be the lasting legacy for Louisville when the bicentennial celebration ends this fall.

Photo: Ed Hamilton
Ed Hamilton

Hamilton's reputation for monumental public works has long been lauded. His many creations include the Amistad Memorial in New Haven, Conn.; the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Booker T. Washington Memorial at the Hampton Institute in Virginia; and Joe Louis Memorial in Detroit.

In Louisville, Hamilton's statue of Lenny Lyles has a home in Cardinal Park on U of L's Belknap Campus.

Hamilton now hopes to fill in some of the blanks surrounding York with what he considers one of his most important commissions. Just as enslaved West African farmer Joseph Cinque, portrayed in the Amistad Memorial, forever casts a look of noble defiance on his New Haven pedestal, York's strong gaze will take in the Ohio River when unveiled this October.

Born a slave and childhood companion of Clark, York played a significant role in the expedition, eventually gaining equal voice in decisions. Native Americans considered him "big medicine" and were amazed at his size and dark skin. York helped pole the keelboat up the Missouri, hunted for meat, made the fire and even risked his life to save Clark. Yet he was the source of much lament in Clark's letters home to his brother.

"I did wish to do well by him," Clark writes, "but as he has got Such a notion about freedom and his immense services, that I do not expect he will be of much Service to me again."

York received no pay, nor land, unlike other members of the expedition. Falling out of Clark's favor, York suffered a beating, jailings, separation from his wife and wasn't granted freedom until years after the expedition.

"Who was this man?" Hamilton remembers asking himself at the beginning of the project. "I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and anything else I could get my hands on. I needed to envision York in my mind. I knew he had to be strong, someone with whom you could trust your life."

Hamilton's vision will now become the "definitive" York, already gracing the cover of a soon-to-be-published book, York's Adventures with Lewis and Clark, by Rhoda Blumberg with an introduction by Holmberg.

"I wanted to see him as the Indians did," Hamilton says. "They accepted him for his own ability and strength, not the servant. I studied pictures of slaves, especially those with more African features as he was probably only one generation away from the continent.

"My goal was to give both a face and a voice to someone forgotten so long, someone who was almost lost to history forever."

 

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