Delightful Prospects

Page 2 of 4

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.3

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.4 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.5

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.6 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."7

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."8 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."9

3. Ibid., 8:255.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Large, op. cit., p. 14.

7. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (7th ed., 2 vols., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1970), s.v. "Pompey's pillar."

8. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 2 vols., New York: Clarendon Press, 1989), s.v. "pomp," "pompous."

9. 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).