Welcome back to Dispatches From The Frontier, Multiversity Comics’ “Manifest Destiny” annotations column. Following up on the last entry, we’re digging into issue 27 of “Manifest Destiny”, the Skybound Entertainment comic from Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts that follows Lewis and Clark on their journey to rid the Louisiana Purchase of great and terrible monsters. This is nothing like what they taught you in history class.
The Corps of Discovery is still camped in their winter quarters at Fort Mandan and the fog that has rolled in has brought some unexpected threats with it. As usual, it might just be up to Captain Lewis and his smarts to get the expedition out of a jam. We’ll take a look at the journey so far, with a bit of a dive into what exactly the Corps did while wintering at Fort Mandan; shine a spotlight on one of the most interesting members of the expedition, Clark’s slave York; and wrap up with some speculation on just where the Corps goes after this issue and how the War Child might tie into it.
The Journey So Far:
As this issue dawns, the Corps of Discovery continues to wait out the first winter of the expedition at Fort Mandan, in modern day North Dakota. The past couple of issues have shown the peaceful and fruitful interaction that the Corps, and particularly Lewis, have had with the Mandan tribe, learning about various edible plants in the area and picking up other useful skills from the tribe. Not a whole lot has happened since last issue, honestly, but they are literally waiting out the winter, after all.
During the historical journey, the Corps would use these months to restock their food supplies, while also adding to a stockpile of other supplies they needed for the longer journey to the Pacific Coast. Given that they didn’t want to give away all their trade goods so early in the journey and that Lewis and Clark weren’t too keen on giving guns to the Native Americans unless they absolutely had to, they had to seek alternate means of trade. One option that proved quite popular among the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes that lived near Fort Mandan was smithing axes for the natives. The Corps had two blacksmiths they brought along with them and the Mandan tribe favored an axe with a certain, peculiar design. So, the two Corps blacksmiths would make these axes for the Mandan in exchange for food and other goods. It was something that was relatively easy for the Corps, but seemed quite valuable for the Native Americans.
While Americans and Europeans had not explored most of the route that the Corps of Discovery was following, it seems the Native Americans had longstanding and far reaching trade networks across the interior of the country. Interestingly, some of the axes that the Corps made for the Mandan and Hidatsa during that winter of 1804/1805 would later be seen wagered as part of gambling bets among the Nez Perce tribe once Lewis and Clark made their way to the Pacific Northwest. The axes had made the journey from North Dakota to the Pacific faster than the actual Corps of Discovery did.
It’s interesting that Clark is shown to be more distrustful of the Native Americans than Lewis in the previous issues, as, though both of them often dealt with Native Americans and spoke to them, Clark was always described as being more comfortable among them and seemingly to genuinely enjoy their company more. He always collected better notes in his journals about Native American life, social structure, and the like due to that comfort around the various tribes.
The Blue Jacket that Clark references when he and Sacagawea have their standoff at the end is a Shawnee warchief who led a pantribal confederacy of Native Americans in defense of their tribal lands in what is now Ohio and surrounding areas. Starting in 1789, Clark would take part in multiple military engagements as part of the Northwest Indian War, with Blue Jacket leading the Native American forces. It was during the early days of this conflict that Clark and his fellows in the Kentucky militia would attack a peaceful Shawnee camp, killing at least 8 innocent people. The several years he spent as part of the American force in the Northwest Indian War would hone both his military and survival skills,Continued below
To me, one of the most interesting members of the Corps of Discovery was York, Captain Clark’s slave. He’s most interesting precisely because, unlike every other member of the Corps who enlisted, was hired on, or volunteered in some form, York was owned by Clark and made to come along regardless of whether or not he really wanted to. In an expedition to explore the new lands of a nation founded on freedom, he was the only member who wasn’t free. He’s currently out of commission in this arc, having been quarantined after exposure to the fog, but that’s not to say he won’t show up in a big way before the arc is over.
York was a slave, who along with his father, mother, sister, and brother, were enslaved by William Clark’s father, before being passed along to William after his father’s death. York was Willaim’s servant from boyhood, with the two being more or less the same age and growing up together. Though their relationship was very much master/slave, and Clark was said to be a harsh master, Clark was also said to trust York over nearly anyone else.
During the expedition, York would see more of North America than likely any slave before him, traveling from Kentucky to the Pacific Ocean and back again. On the journey, he would also experience freedom as he never truly had before. York was put to work like any other member of the expedition, and he also went on scouting missions, trading trips to Native villages, and any number of other activities that the free white men also took part in. When deciding where to make winter quarters in 1805/1806, everyone, including York, was given a vote, even if his was counted last. These years of the expedition would give York a taste of freedom unlike anything he had experience in his life before and likely soured him on the idea of going back to being a normal slave when things were all over. Upon their return, York asked Clark for his freedom based on his excellent service, as every other member of the Corps had received payments of money and land.
York was also the first black man that many of the Native Americans the Corps encountered has ever seen, with many of them referring to him as a “black white man” and attempting to rub the color off of his skin. His appearance and apparent size and strength means he was given a deep sense of respect and a great amount of “medicine” among the Natives, even more so than the white explorers, making him a popular guest, especially among the women, whenever the Corps would stay in a Native village. Multiple historians and writers have joked that York was likely the father to more than one very dark skinned Native American.
As with most members of the Corps of Discovery who weren’t Lewis or Clark, Yorks’ ultimate fate is unclear. When Washington Irving (yes, the guy who wrote “Rip Van Winkle”) interviewed Clark in 1832, Clark claimed to have freed York, but York hated his freedom as he was a failure at business and died trying to get back to St. Louis to be Clark’s slave once more. The accuracy of this is in doubt since the statement plays into the period’s pro-slavery argument that freed slaves wouldn’t be able to handle their freedom.
Another source claimed that York simply refused to return to slavery and never came back from the expedition. Explorer Zenas Leonard claims to have met an African man living among a Crow tribe in Wyoming who was said to have come to that part of the country with the Lewis and Clark expedition. The man had been living with the Crows for many years, acquiring knowledge of their language and customs and been granted a great amount of respect, on the same level as a chief, and had four wives. Contemporaries took Leonard’s account to mean that York had escaped slavery and taken up a life among the Native Americans.
Yet another source claims that while York asked for his freedom, he continued to work for Clark as a slave for another ten years or so after the expedition. Clark eventually did give him his freedom, upon which time York went to working in the freighting business in Tennessee and Kentucky. He would supposedly die of cholera in 1832.Continued below
The actual outcome of York is probably something closer to the last account, something less fantastical and more realistic. Clark makes no mention of York escaping slavery at any point in his journals or writings, and Clark had taken to keeping detailed journals ever since his early militia days. Something like the escape of York, a slave that had been with him essentially since birth, would’ve surely been written down at some point.
Even centuries after he helped shape American history, York is remembered by many in the African American community and the nation as a whole. His name was given to a couple of landmarks during the journey, including York’s 8 Islands and York’s Dry Creek in Montana. His life story has also inspired an opera and a play, along with statues being erected in his honor. Bill Clinton even made York an honorary sergeant in the US Army in 2004, recognizing his service as part of the Corps of Discovery.
Not a whole lot has really been made of the York’s status as a slave in the comic so far, besides a few remarks from members of the Corps here and there. Maybe it won’t really be made a big deal of, but it’s a worthwhile bit of history to explore and an interesting facet of the Corps of Discovery.
A lot of my thoughts from the previous issue were confirmed, as the monsters in the fog seem to be just fog and the fog is causing the effects as the people breathe it in. Getting to see Clark freaking out about the Shawnee, which he fought against (and also killed innocent members of the tribe) in his early military days, is good as it ties back into the events which seem to weigh heavily on him. In the comic, he’s portrayed as being somewhat remorseful or haunted about his actions when it comes to the his military past with the Native Americans.
Interestingly, Lewis isn’t affected by the fog, seemingly due to the plants that he was fed by the Mandan in the previous issues. Probably the little red berries? That does make sense, given that the Mandan already knew about the fog and knew to stay out of it, so it’s only right that they would have a way to combat its negative influence on their minds. I imagine this will take a similar route to the bug spray solution in Vol 2, where Lewis gathers the necessary plants and herbs to give to the other members of the Corps so they can overcome the fog. That is, of course, if Sacagawea and Clark don’t kill each other first.
There’s three more issues left in the arc, so I’m interested to see what happens in the rest, as the “monster” of the arc is already revealed and the way to beat it is already discovered. Surely it won’t take three issues for Lewis to break up the Clark/Sacagawea fight and to make everyone eat some berries and herbs?
One possibility is that Sacagawea goes into labor, possibly with the fight with Clark only serving to hasten things. During the historical journey, Sacagawea would have Jean Baptiste before she ever left Fort Mandan and truly became part of the Corps of Discovery. It would only be fitting for her to give birth while at Fort Mandan in the comic, especially as the other characters keep making a fuss of her being so close to giving birth.
If that’s the case, what does the coming of the War Child mean for the Corps of Discovery? What does it mean for their overall mission? All we really know right now is that War Child is the key to controlling all this land that America has just purchased. “Whichever antagonist spills the blood of the War Child shall win the war and rule the land”, was part of the message that Navath, Keeper of the Realms, gave to Captain Helm, which he then relayed to Thomas Jefferson. That message is essentially the whole reason for this expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Does the War Child have to be delivered to Navath? Is there a ritual of some sort? Navath seems to somewhere on the Pacific Coast, and there’s still roughly a year before the Corps gets there, so I’m betting that they need to bring the War Child to Navath. Otherwise, this is going to be wrap up pretty quickly.Continued below
All this isn’t even taking into account how they coerced Sacagawea into essentially offering herself and her child as a sacrifice. Will she have a change of heart? Will she go along with things quietly? Only time will tell.