LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If you live in Kentucky, chances are you’ve learned quite a bit about Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark. Their contributions are detailed in history books, and there’s no shortage of statues erected in their honor or buildings, roads, and bridges bearing their names and likeness.
What’s often missing from history books and other historical accounts are the stories of the enslaved African Americans who traveled with the famed early European explorers who came to Kentucky. A new exhibit at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville shines a bright light on these little-known individuals and highlights their contributions that directly helped these explorers’ successes.
It is part of the Frazier’s “Cool Kentucky” exhibit, which highlights the “cool” and fascinating contributions of Kentuckians. Curator Amanda Briede said, in most cases, it was easy to exclude people that were slaveholders or those who fought for the Confederacy. But because the early European explorers who came to the Commonwealth are such a big part of Kentucky’s history, the museum did not feel like they could exclude them from the exhibit.
“The way that we addressed that is to pair these explorers with the enslaved people they brought with them when they came to Kentucky. We know they didn’t come alone,” explained Briede. “We know that they owned slaves, but they still did cool things and so did the slaves they brought with [them].”
It wasn’t an easy feat. Little is known about the enslaved individuals who traveled with the explorers, but that didn’t stop the Frazier from digging up all that is known about them. Historically, slaves were not photographed, so the museum represented each enslaved individual with a silhouette. A few lines of copy tell what little is known about them:
Owned by William Clark, York accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famed expedition to the west in 1803. He was the only African American who went on the expedition, and he played a huge role in their success by performing duties like hunting and fishing. The fact that York was allowed to hunt, according to the National Park Service, is notable because slaves typically were not allowed to handle firearms. He also greatly helped Lewis and Clark with Native American relations because the native tribes were fascinated with York’s size, strength, and dark complexion. Although York was respected by the men with whom he journeyed, Clark didn’t free York until ten years after the expedition.
Of the four slaves depicted in the Frazier’s exhibit, York is considered the most recognizable, in part, because of the York statue on the Louisville Belvedere. Ed Hamilton sculpted the towering bronze statue as an homage to York’s contributions to Lewis and Clark’s exhibition. It was dedicated in 2003 in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s historical trip.
Kitt was an enslaved man who was known as George Rogers Clark’s body man or personal assistant. He ran errands for Clark and cared for him after the general lost his leg and after several strokes. William Clark released Kitt shortly after George Rogers Clark’s death, at the behest of his late brother who had asked his younger brother to free Kitt shortly before he died. It’s unknown what happened to Kitt after he was emancipated.
Caesar, a formerly enslaved man, had been adopted by members of the Shawnee nation after they killed his owners and was living with the Shawnee at Chillicothe when he met Simon Kenton. According to the Frazier, the Shawnee captured Kenton while trying to steal horses. He endured weeks of torture until encountering Caesar, who only pretended to torture Kenton and told him how to escape the Shawnee. Ultimately, Kenton was not able to escape, but his life was spared, and he was later adopted into the Shawnee nation. Caesar is credited with helping Kenton survive after his capture.
Dolly was one of only two women on the expedition led by Daniel Boone in 1775 that started in Watauga, Tenn. and ended at the Kentucky River. Dolly, who was enslaved by Richard Callaway, is credited with helping Fort Boonesborough get started. It was there, according to the Frazier, that Dolly prepared meals, tended to fires, scraped fresh hides, and prepared pack animals. She also was the first person to give birth at the fort; the child is believed to belong to Calloway. The Frazier says there’s no evidence suggesting Dolly was ever emancipated.
Even in silhouette, the exhibit brings the stories and contributions of these individuals to life.
"In all honesty, we’re lucky we know the names of these people. In many cases the only documentation we have on these peoples’ lives were listed as a ‘negro woman’ and how much they cost. So we’re lucky that we know this little bit about their story," said Briede.
In many ways, the few details known about York, Kitt, Caesar, and Dolly lead the mind to wonder about all the missing pieces of their story, but perhaps that’s what the Frazier had in mind.
“I feel like it is necessary to acknowledge and take responsibility and accountability in the past and once we sit with [the fact] that it happened, then we can start to have these conversations about how can we be a better world,” said LaPrecious Brewer, the Frazier’s marketing manager. “As museums, how can we tell fuller stories and reach greater audiences and be more inclusive and make a true difference in the community and in our nation?”
York, Kitt, Caesar, and Dolly aren’t the only hidden figures featured in the Frazier’s “Cool Kentucky” exhibit. The exhibit also includes a section about Henry Boyd, an enslaved Kentucky native who is credited with revolutionizing the bed frame. His design was so successful, he was able to buy himself and his siblings out of slavery, and later, would play an important role in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati.
If you’re interested in learning more about these and other hidden Kentucky histories, consider checking out the Frazier’s upcoming virtual program, “Cool Kentucky: Hidden History,” on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. Panelists include sculptor Ed Hamilton, curator Amanda Briede, Locust Grove Executive Director Carol Ely and more. The free virtual program will be hosted on Zoom and you can sign up on the event page.
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