Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Meriwether: York's story

Ed Hamilton's statue of York in Louisville, KY

A few days ago, I blogged about an earlier update to the Meriwether: An American Epic Kickstarter project. Well, there are still four days to go, and they're down to needing just $7,000 more in pledges.

And they're still coming out with fascinating updates. This one is also from Carlos Hernandez, their lead writer:
After the Expedition made it back to the U.S., the members of the Corps of Discovery were regarded as national heroes and were granted land allotments as thanks for their service. But not all members: York, Clark’s slave and personal manservant, received no land or payment. He was forced to return to his former life of servitude on Clark’s estate.

York found it difficult to adjust back to life as a slave. Over the years after the Expedition, Clark asked several people, including his brother Jonathan and Meriwether Lewis, for advice on how to handle his increasingly unwilling slave. And then, in 1810 (about four years after the Expedition), Clark writes, “[York] is here but of verry little Service to me ... insolent and Sulky, I gave him a severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended Sence.” [sic; Clark was a terrible speller.]

Those two words, “severe trouncing,” squeeze my heart.

Clark and York had been together since they were boys. York probably saved Clark’s life during a flash flood near Great Falls, Montana. He was loyal, brave, physically strong and agile (quite the dancer, apparently), and in all everything a member of the Corps should be. But he also brought many unanticipated benefits to the mission. Many Native Americans had never seen anyone of African descent before and were fascinated by York. One tribe called him a “great medicine” (which might be translated as a “great wonder”) and gave him a great deal of respect, which benefited the entire Corps.

And Clark rewards all of these contributions by having York tied to a post and whipped.

In creating York’s story arc for our game, I am working backwards. I am taking the fact that someone like Clark--who by my reading was an affable, sensible, even-tempered and generous man--could then go and “trounce” York, as my guiding star for this part of the narrative. It’s obvious that the journey changed York. He regularly carried a firearm (almost unheard-of for a slave of the time), was asked for his opinion as to where the Corps should build their winter fort on the Pacific, and looked on with awe, as did the rest of the Corps, as thousands of buffalo galloped across the plains of the Northwest. He came to know a level of freedom that nothing in his life up to then had prepared him for.

And then it was time to go home. To go back to being a slave. To being property.

Incredible, isn't it? How could our ancestors have been like that? Of course, I'm talking about William Clark, but it applies to both sides, slave and slave-owner alike. I find it impossible to understand Clark, but I can't imagine how York could have survived such injustice, either.

I get angry just thinking about it!

And how will this work in a game? Hernandez continues:
Without spoiling anything, let me say that York, Clark and others will take up the question of York’s freedom with you, and your answers will have both short- and long-term consequences. And if you think you can simply bring your 21st-century values around slavery to the game and advocate for York’s freedom without a price, think again. ...

Don’t expect Meriwether to offer up pat, feel-good answers to these questions. As York’s story shows us, real life is complicated, and often heartbreaking. I will use the real history of the Corps of Discovery to invite that complexity and heartbreak into Meriwether, and then force you to make some tough, tough choices. If I do my job as writer, those choices will offer insight not only into Lewis’s age, but our own.

This is going to be history more than alternate history, so I really don't know how that will work. (But I'm anxious to find out.) I loved Eric Flint's The Rivers of War, and its sequel, because it showed history completely upended, a different direction we could have taken.

This is likelier to be... more realistic. Still, these updates have been intriguing. I really hope they make their Kickstarter goal.


Chimeradave said...

Wow, really surprised York didn't kill Clark when they got back.

Imagine just being one of the guys on the adventure and then being a slave again when you returned.

I wonder if he thought he's be free when he returned. He must have or else he would have run off into the woods or something.

I guess he had a wife and children and he took the beatings for their sake.

Horrible to think about!

WCG said...

York was born a slave. He'd never known another life before going on the expedition. But then, to get a taste - just a taste - of what respect would be like, what freedom would be like,...

And to share the adventures, share the dangers, then to return home to slavery, while everyone else was rewarded and honored. Yes, John, it's horrible, indeed!