My Boy Pomp, About That Name

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'
Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

A Beautiful Promising Child

Captain Clark at Pompey's Pillar

Pomp, Sacagawea, and Clark disembark from dugout canoes at Pompey's Pillar

Courtesy Bureau of Land Management

It's easy to begin a letter, assuming you have a good reason for writing. You extend a few verbal handshakes, then get to the point. Pen and ink is all you have at hand. No face, no voice, no body-language of your own to finesse the raw words. You close with some sort of a word-wave and sign your name. Perhaps you tag on a "by the way" to underscore your message, or ease the going.

Aboard the white pirogue near the Arikara village, on August 20, 1806, Captain William Clark writes a letter to "Mr. Teousant Charbono."2 They parted company only three days before, at the Mandan village where, twenty-one months earlier, Charbonneau had signed on as an interpreter. "I had not time to talk with you as much as I intended, Clark begins. "You have been a long time with me and have conducted your Self in Such a manner as to gain my friendship."

He compliments Sacagawea: ". . . your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans."

Then to the point—his affection and concern for Charbonneau's child, Jean Baptiste: "As to your little Son (my boy Pomp), you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child." Clark repeats the offer he made verbally on August 17th, to help the boy's father find a permanent livelihood after the expedition is over, and mentions the boy again: ". . . or if you wish to return to trade with the indians and will leave your little Son Pomp with me, I will assist you with . . ."—and so on. "If you are desposed to accept either of my offers to you," continues the captain, "and will bring down your Son your famn"not squaw but femme, woman; he uses the French noun as a friendly gesture toward both Toussaint and his wife; then his own affectionate nickname—"your famn Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy untill I get him."

It's a remarkable plan for the reserved, unmarried Clark to commit himself to raising someone else's child—especially one whose age and developmental stage could scarcely have offered many clues to his future personality or intelligence. Oh, he does have marriage in mind, and when the expedition is over he'll hurry back to Virginia to marry his young cousin, Judith (a year or two younger than Pomp's mother). But how bold a stroke to bring a foster child to the new union, sight unseen.

Clark's offer is in line with the orders President Jefferson had written out for Lewis: "If any of them"—Indians, Jefferson meant—"should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs or of young people, would give some security to your own party."3 Yet it's hard to find anything beyond genuine affection and altruism in Clark's letter.

As if afraid the crusty Frenchman might turn him down on all counts—or was it to capture the man's attention by a trendy hint of intrigue?—Clark adds a mysterious warning:

"keep this letter and let not more than one or 2 persons see it, and when you write to seal your letter. I think you best not deturmin which of my offers to accept untill you See me. Come prepared to accept of either which you may chuse after you get down."

There's a sense of urgency in Clark's tone that seems inconsistent with the circumstances, for on the 17th he had noted in his journal that Charbonneau had agreed to let him take Baptiste, that "butifull promising Child," to raise in such a manner as he deemed proper. And it's understood that it will be another year or so before the boy will be weaned.

Delightful Prospects

On July 25, 1806, nearly a month before he wrote his letter to Charbonneau, and in what was perhaps the grandest of all the captains' nominations, Clark gave the name "Pompy's Tower" to a 120-foot-high Cretaceous sandstone outcrop on the bank of the Yellowstone River, about 28 miles downstream from present-day Billings, Montana.4

From its summit Clark could see a "delightfull prospect of the extensive Country around" —snowcapped mountains on the horizon, beyond broad plains abounding in buffalo, elk and wolves. Today, in that vast landscape where every geologic feature is an overstatement commensurate with the Big Sky above, it's difficult to identify "Pompy's Tower" from Interstate 94. Those "high romantic Clifts" that "approach & jut over the water for Some distance both above and below," overshadow it. Indeed, we enjoy a view, selected for us by the modern highway's engineers, that Clark and his men could have gained only at great expense in time and energy —of which they were in short supply.

In the first narrative of the expedition, published by Paul Allen in 1814, editor Nicholas Biddle changed "Pompy's Tower" to "Pompey's Pillar," clearly assuming that Clark meant to liken the landmark to a famous monument in Egypt. But since Clark's letter has come to light, the preferred conclusion is that he named it for the Charbonneaus' child, though there's no specific link in the journals.5 In fact, as if the two were separate in his mind, Clark gave the name "baptiests Creek" to the "large Brook" entering the Yellowstone River opposite.6

As Arlen Large has pointed out, the publication in 1803 of Vivant Denon's Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt made the 99-foot red granite Corinthian column standing atop the highest hill in Alexandria, an icon for the currently fashionable interest in the exotic Near East.7 By 1815, if not earlier, it was well-enough known to serve in a simile for long odds: . . . like comparing "Pompey's pillar to a stick of sealing-wax."8

The common noun pomp, derived from a Greek word for procession, acquired in the late 18th century the connotation of "ostentatious display and vain glory," from which it needed but a short semantic glissade to become pompous, "an exaggerated display of self-importance or dignity." Bostonians were sometimes referred to as "Pompkins," owing to their supposed appetite for pumpkins, and the city and its environs were jokingly called "Pompkinshire." A person with an inflated ego was a "big pumpkin," or "some punkins."9 Similarly, the proper noun Pompey, spelled with or without an e, occupied a firm place in the American vernacular throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with a thread leading from Plutarch via Shakespeare, the slave trade, and the post-Revolutionary-era ballroom.

It was possibly from Plutarch's Lives that Shakespeare learned of Gnaeus Pompeius who, at the age of twenty-three, earned the surname magnus for his victory over the Marians, and became the champion of the Roman aristocracy, only to be defeated in battle by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. and forced to flee to Alexandria, where he was assassinated. Moreover, the playwright clearly assumed that his audience was familiar enough with the ancient Roman general to make jokes about him, for he gave his name to a comic character in Measure for Measure —a glib and clownish bartender and pimp. Hauled before judge Escalus, the "servant" of Mistress Overdone is cross-examined:

Escal. What's your name, master tapster?
Clo. Pompey.
Escal. What else?
Bum, sir.
Escal. 'Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you; so that, in the beastiest sense, you are Pompey the great.

Escalus dismisses the clown with a warning: "I advise you, let me not find you before me again upon any complaint whatsoever. . . . if I do, Pompey, I shall beat you to your tent and prove a shrewd Caesar to you."10

A Suitable Choice

For practical rather than literary reasons the name worked its way into common usage in the Colonies, possibly bringing with it some vague awareness of Shakespeare's Pompey. As a part of the "breaking" process, slave traders usually gave their chattel Christian names, most often from the Old Testament, but sometimes from the Classics, and even from Shakespeare. If a young slave or indentured servant showed an ingratiating manner, a sense of humor, and perhaps even the appropriate physical attributes, then Pompey—or Pomp for short—might be a suitable choice.

There were numerous African-American Pompeys in the colonies, especially in the Northeast. There was, for instance, Pompey of Braintree, one of the minutemen who responded to Paul Revere's alarm on April 18, 1775.11 Four years later, General Anthony Wayne was aided in the battle at Stony Point by a black soldier-spy named Pompey.12

The name Pompey also evolved into a symbol of popular musical culture when colonial African-Americans parodied the jig, an old English popular dance, with their own style of footwork.13 By about 1775, "Negro jigs," or "scamper dances," were beginning to be popular among whites in Britain and America. The tunes to at least three of them were published in Scotland in 1782: "Negro Dance," "Congo—A jig," and "Pompey ran away . . . Negroe Jig."14

If this was a true reflection of those tunes' popularity on this side of the Atlantic, then it is at perhaps conceivable that Private George Gibson, the "other" fiddler in the company (Pierre Cruzatte was on the Missouri with Meriwether Lewis), knew them. This is not meant to imply that "Pompey ran away" inspired the boy's name, but only that the naming could have been celebrated with it.

Little Dancing Boy

As recently as June 6, July 13 and August 3, 1806, the Charbonneaus' boy was still "the child," for the record. By the time the well-known landmark was reached on July 25 he was just a little over seventeen months old.15 What sort of a child could Jean Baptiste Charbonneau have been, that Clark should have been so fond of him? "Cultures construct children," it has been said.16 But cross-cultural differences between Euro-American child-rearing and the boy's Metis-Shoshone-Hidatsa heritage, compounded by the time differential, preclude any possibility of measuring his developmental stage as of August, 1806. It is perhaps reasonable to assume, however, that in the last few weeks before the expedition reached his Mandan village birthplace, he may have grown to be a catalyst between two cultures, focusing love like a puppy.

Very likely, he had learned to walk, even to run, with an eighteen-month-old's stride—to prance, hop, stagger, sometimes do a face-plant in the dust, or a comic pratfall on his diapered bum. Might latent feelings of affection have surged to the surface among the weather-beaten and hardship-hardened men? At dusk, when it was too dark to work on the canoes, or hunt for game, or track down those damned horses, might the child have become the center of attention?

Was he cute? A clown? A little "Pomp," or "some punkins," scamper-dancing at the fingertips of young George Shannon, or John Shields who surely missed his own child—or York? Or perhaps the captain himself?

Sometimes it's hard to compose a letter all the way to its end, so you bow out with a comfortable cliché—"hoping you . . . Trusting you will. . . ." Something like that.

The captain chooses: "Wishing you and your family great suckcess. . . ."

But he can't forgo one more statement of his abiding affection, and continues without a pause, " . . . & with anxious expectations of seeing . . ."

The right words spring to mind. " . . . my little danceing boy Baptiest . . . "

Then back to the formula. " . . . I shall remain your friend . . ."

If we lean close, we fancy we can see the smile bend his lips, hear the crisp, low chuckle in his throat, and feel the ripple of joy that draws his pen through the restrained flourishes of his signature.

" . . . William Clark."

  • 1. Joseph M. Mussulman, "'My Boy Pomp': About That Name," We Proceeded On, May 1995, Volume 21, No. 2, the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Editorial additions include page titles, side headings, and graphics to assist the web-based reader. The original format is provided at
  • 2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), I:315-16.
  • 3. Ibid., I:64.
  • 4. Ibid., 8:255.
  • 5. Nonetheless, the Bureau of Land Management's brochure for Pompey's Pillar National Historic Landmark implies a connection, and also perpetuates the fiction that Pompy is a Shoshone word meaning "little chief." For a discussion of this point, see Irving W. Anderson, "A Charbonneau Family Portrait," in The American West: The Magazine of Western History, March-April, 1980, pp. 11, 62. (Rev. ed., Astoria, Oregon: Fort Clatsop Historical Association, 1992), pp. 14-15.
  • 6. July 25, 1806; Moulton, 8:255, 228n. On his map (Moulton, Atlas map 116), Clark labeled the stream "River Baptiests nearly dry," although the journal entry for the day mentions "some running muddy water." Regarding theories about the naming of the stream, see Arlen Large, "Pompeys Pillar: Should mere fragments of facts become a 'general' conclusion?" We Proceeded On, Vol. 16, No. 3 (August 1990), p. 17.
  • 7. Large, op. cit., p. 14.
  • 8. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (7th ed., 2 vols., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1970), s.v. "Pompey's pillar."
  • 9. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 2 vols., New York: Clarendon Press, 1989), s.v. "pomp," "pompous."
  • 10. Act 2, Scene 1. It may also have been from the configuration of Pompey's "bum" that, in Newfoundland, a small sloping teakettle came to be called a pompey. See Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1944).
  • 11. Lorenze J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 (New York: Athaneum, 1968), p. 190.
  • 12. Mabel M. Smythe, The Black American Reference Book (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 18.
  • 13. Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 122-24.
  • 14. "Pompey Ran Away: Negroe Jig," in A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, Adapted for the Fife, Violin or German Flute. . . . (2 vols., Glasgow: J. Aird, 1782), I:57. This publication also contained the first printed version of the tune to the popular Revolutionary-era song, "Yankee Doodle."
  • 15. Not nineteen months, as Clark writes on August 17, 1806 (Moulton, 8:305).
  • 16. Marc H. Bornstein and Michael E. Lamb, Development in Infancy: An Introduction (2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.), p. 53.