During their journey west and return east, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left numerous marks recording their presence in order to validate a claim to the land for the United States. In some locations they painted the bark of trees, while in other places they made inscriptions in stone.
Capt. Clark’s journal entries indicate he left at least 13 marks along the way, including three through the Yellowstone Valley. Pompey's Pillar along the bank of the Yellowstone River in southeastern Montana is the only location where an inscription remains. In fact, it is the only remaining physical evidence of the historic journey of the Corps of Discovery.
This makes Pompey's Pillar a very special place.
During our own 2010 trip following the Oregon Trail west, and returning eastward via the Lewis and Clark Trail from the Corps’ winter quarters at Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon, we chose to head east by way of Great Falls and Fort Benton, Montana, as we followed the Missouri River to the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence. Unlike Lewis and Clark, we couldn’t split up and cover multiple routes used by the Corps on the return to St. Louis. As a result, we were unable to visit Pompey's Pillar until a recent trip took us back to Montana.
Pompey's Pillar National Monument preserves the location where Captain Clark on July 25, 1806, inscribed his name and the date on the prominent sandstone outcrop beside the south bank of the Yellowstone River. Clark initially called the rock Pompy’s Tower, a name that was later changed to Pompey's Pillar by the editor of the Lewis and Clark journals published in 1814.
There is some thought that Clark named the rock outcropping, not for the son of Sacagawea and Charbonneau as is commonly believed, but rather for a granite column in Alexandria, Egypt, that was described as Pompey’s Pillar in an 1803 article by a Washington, D.C. newspaper. In truth, no one knows for sure.
Something we didn’t learn until our recent visit is the inscription by Clark has been deepened on two occasions, first by a stonecutter as directed by the steamboat captain, Grant Marsh, in 1875; and again in 1926 by a gravestone cutter employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad, at the encouragement of The Daughters of the American Revolution.
Although designated in 1985 as a part of the Lewis and Clark National Trail System, whose chief interpreter is the National Park Service, the monument today is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which purchased the property in 1991 from a local family. The 150-foot high pillar and approximately 50 acres of surrounding property was designated a national monument in 2001.
The monument includes a visitor center that opened in 2006, the 200th anniversary of Clark’s visit. The visitor center offers exhibits, an excellent film, and a small gift shop. A short trail with descriptive markers leads to a series of 220 wooden stairs that provide access to the pillar’s top. Clark’s inscription is about half way up and covered with a plastic shield that was installed by the private property owners in the 1950s to protect it from the elements.
The view from the top of the outcropping is certainly worth the climb. A nice picnic area is beside the Yellowstone River. Annual visitation is approximately 30,000, according to monument manager Jeff Kitchens.
During the last weekend of July, the BLM and Pompeys Pillar Historical Association hold Clark Days commemorating Clark’s visit to the area. Activities include a reenactment of Clark’s arrival by canoe, other living history demonstrations, and talks offered by historians.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument is located in southeastern Montana, 28 miles east of Billings, a short distance off Interstate 94 (exit 23). The visitor center is open from the beginning of May through the end of September. Although the visitor center is closed, walk-ins are welcome the remainder of the year. An entrance fee of $7 per vehicle is charged. The Interagency Pass is good for free entry.