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Travel: Meeting Clark (But Not Lewis) on the Yellowstone

Travel: Meeting Clark (But Not Lewis) on the Yellowstone

Where the Mountain Lion Lies” was the name the Crow people gave to the massive sandstone outcrop that rises above the plain near the Yellowstone River not far from Billings, Montana. On July 25, 1806, when Capt. William Clark first set eyes on it, he called it “Pomp’s Tower,” after his pet name for his guide Sacagawea’s little boy (“Pomp” translates to “little chief” in his mother’s Shoshone language). Clark promptly climbed to the top, carved his name and the date in the rock, and recorded in his journal that it was “200 feet high and 400 paces in secumphrerance” and that “from its top had a most extensive view in every direction.” The surrounding country contained “emence herds of Buffalow, Elk and wolves.”

When the journals were published, in l814, it became “Pompey’s Pillar.” The buffalo, wolves, and elk are mostly gone now, but the view from the top remains wide and remarkably empty. Cottonwoods still crowd the banks of the Yellowstone, which remains a free-flowing river. The Pillar is now a National Monument. From July 22 through 25 this summer it will be the site of “Clark on the Yellowstone,” one of the last of the major events marking the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (for more on them, see

President Thomas Jefferson had been clear that the mission of the expedition was “to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it, as . . . may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.” When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached St. Louis, at the beginning of their push west, they began to hear tales of the Yellowstone and its bounty. Fur traders and Indians described it as alive with beaver and otter, which at the time certainly qualified as commerce. The explorers put the river on their list, but it would have to wait for the return journey.

Some 20 months later, having at last joyfully reached the end of the continent at “this great Pacific octean,” as Clark reported in his journal, the Corps of Discovery turned back toward home, starting out in the spring of 1806. The eastward journey would be as arduous, as rife with peril, and as rich in discovery as the westward, but it seems almost to have slipped from the collective memory.

By July 3, 1806, Sacagawea had guided the 33 men over the Bozeman Pass and into what is now western Montana. Now it was time to trace the tributaries of the Missouri. The party divided, with Clark and the larger contingent heading for the Yellowstone while Lewis swung north to explore the Marias River. The groups would rendezvous a month later about 125 miles south of where the Yellowstone feeds into the Missouri.

Of his 20-day journey down the Yellowstone that summer, Clark wrote of a land filled with fine grass, of so many elk “we have not been out of sight of them today,” of an incredible abundance of wild animals. In the years to come, a flood of traders would use the journals of Lewis and Clark as a guide, and Pompey’s Pillar would become a well-known landmark.

Hundreds of petroglyphs on the face of the rock affirm its importance to Native Americans. Their descendants will play a major role in “Clark on the Yellowstone,” with the Montana Tribal Tourism Alliance and the Crow Indian Nation sponsoring an encampment. There will be a pipe ceremony, drumming and dancing, and a Native American symposium. Clark historians will confabulate, and nine local bands will play bluegrass, folk, and pop.

In the midst of the music will be exhibits offered by a compendium of government agencies, everything from a Living History Mall (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to a Tent of Many Voices (National Park Service. There will be vendors, and reenactments, and one Bud Clark will be around for the dedication of a bust of his great-great-great grandfather. The intrepid will be able to climb the sturdy staircase to the top of the Pillar, stand in Clark’s footsteps, and check out his name where he carved it in the wall, tangible evidence of his visit on that July 25, two centuries ago.

A brand new Clark on the Yellowstone Interpretative Center will be dedicated at the opening ceremonies on Saturday, July 22. Military bands will play, tribal flags will be presented, there will be a 21-gun salute, and, as a reminder of how much the world can change in 200 years, a Blackhawk helicopter and F-16 will roar overhead.

Billings is 28 miles west of Pompey’s Pillar. On Friday, July 21, the city plans to get things moving with dancing in the streets, an ice cream social, and a “Black Powder Shotgun Chili Cook-off.”

For more information, see

—Shirley Streshinsky is the author of Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness.