Time-line memories in sandstone
Ranch Wife & Trail Gal
I have often read about the famous Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. This epic 1800s endeavor is a fascinating part our American history, filled with adventure, wild animals, native peoples, misfortune and even romance. Who hasn’t heard of Sacajawea, the Native American female who helped the explorers trek across America over 200 years ago. It wasn’t until I was out on one of my Montana treks this last fall, that I discovered a place to step back in history and walk the same path these explorers did so long ago.
Overlooking a tree lined shore along the Yellowstone River about 25 miles east of Billings, Mont., stands Pompeys Pillar – A massive majestic sandstone tower-outcropping, proudly rising above rolling grasslands and the rocks along the south bank of the river. It is the kind of geological formation that naturally draws a person to its grandeur, if only to enjoy the shade it creates on a hot sunny day beside the tree-lined waterway.
I can easily understand how it has been a sacred natural landmark for the native people of the Northern Plains throughout this region for more than 11,000 years. Here the Crow, Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfeet and Salish tribes found a natural place to ford the Yellowstone River, each giving the landmark a name. The Crow people, the dominant residents of the area, call the pillar the “Mountain Lions Lodge” or “Where the Lion Preys” in their language, and it figures prominently in their oral histories. Hundreds of petroglyphs on the face of the rock reflect the importance of the monument to generations of early peoples.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Pillar was a place of ritual and religious activity, including evidence of hunting and small living camps. The remains of butchered bison and other animals, along with mussels from the Yellowstone River, are scattered among flaked stone tools and debris around small hearths. Over time, these ancient camps were buried by slow flood waters, preserving organic and other materials in place, forever a time-line of the Pillars history.
One of the most notable modern visits to the Pillar was first recorded by James Stuart in 1863. This Montana pioneer and leader of a gold prospecting party observed a distinct signature on Pompeys Pillar. It was by Captain William Clark, carved in the sandstone 60 years earlier. After the Corps of Discovery had reached the Pacific coast their exploration was far from over. In July 1806, Lewis and Clark decided to divide their group into separate parties, maximizing the range they could explore on their trek back home. Clark and his group traversed the Bozeman pass and then set out down the Yellowstone River, where they camped beside a prominent rock formation.
Clark’s journal recorded the stop, “… arrived at a remarkable rock … I ascended and from its top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock I shall call Pompy’s Tower … (Pompy being Clark’s nickname for Sacajawea’s young son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who was born at the Fort Mandan winter camp, Feb. 11, 1805) … The Indians have made two piles of stone on the top of this tower … The natives have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals …” He described a landscape of grassy plains, snow-capped mountains and cliffs along the wandering river. To mark his own presence at this site, Clark engraved his name and the date of their camp on the rock face of the pillar. This simple inscription is the only known remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark journey. It wasn’t until the Lewis and Clark’s journals were published, that the name was changed to “Pompey’s Pillar” by the journals’ first editor.
William Clark’s signature is only one of over 5,000 other etchings and drawings on Pompey’s Pillar. Fur trappers of the early 1800s, military expeditions, railroad workers and early settlers marked the sandstone as a registry of their passing. In 1875, Captain Grant Marsh, pilot of the steamboat Josephine, became the first to raise an American flag on the summit of the pillar. The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1882 and provided transportation throughout the Yellowstone River Valley, including a station a half mile south of the site. Visitors would often walk to the pillar to view Clark’s signature so the railroad decided to protect Clark’s inscription by covering it with a heavy iron screen. Today you can climb wooden boardwalk steps and view Capt. Clark’s handwriting in sandstone, then continue up to the top and gaze across the same river valley the Corps of Discover traveled.
In 2001, Pompey’s Pillar National Monument was established and recently a wonderful new Interpretative Center was built. Easily accessible from Interstate 94 or from State Highway 312, the Monument grounds and Interpretative Center are open daily, May through September. There is a $7 fee but even when the Monument is closed, visitors can still walk into the site during daylight hours. Clark Days are held at Pompey’s Pillar each year on the last weekend of July. This family event commemorates Clark’s stop at the site and includes interpretive demonstrations, Native programs, Lewis and Clark history, food and fun hands-on events. Admission fees are waived during the celebration and it is the only time overnight camping is allowed.
Like William Clark, I recommend this beautiful, historic spot. Come enjoy the Center, a picnic, and a relaxing walk under the ancient cottonwood trees along the Yellowstone river, where small signs dot the stone path, quoting from Clark’s journal about their experiences from the July 15, 1806, encampment here at the Pompey’s Pillar.