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Graffiti—properly sgraffiti: an Italian word meaning "to scribble."

How did humans come by this primordial urge to leave their marks in public places? Is it communication or mindless doodling? Social commentary or political gesture? Art or abomination?

Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition carved, burned, or painted their names or initials—tags, in the modern writer's lingo—and the dates when they did so, more than fourteen times according to the journals.They were practicing what had long been European explorers' legitimate means for claiming dominion over other people's land.1

On this prominent landmark, William Clark scratched his name near an Indian petroglyph, of which he recorded a brief description: "The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c." François Larocque, the Canadian fur company clerk who toured the lower Yellowstone a year prior to Clark's trip, left us a few more details. He saw "a whitish perpendicular Rock on which is painted with Red earth a battle between three persons on horseback and 3 on foot." Neither visitor hazarded a guess as to its meaning, and that "Red earth" has long since weathered away, so we can't either.

Lieutenant James Bradley, who arrived there in April of 1876 with Biddle's version of the expedition's journals in hand, knew about the petroglyph Clark and Larocque had seen, but it was almost worn away by the time he arrived. However, he had observed similar graffiti as he marched down the Yellowstone valley:

At the point where the road ascends from the Clark's Fork bottom [at today's Billings, about 40 miles west of Pompeys Pillar], the rocks are lavishly adorned with Indian hieroglyphics, some of them graven deeply in the face of the rock at a considerable height above the ground and in places difficult of access. I endeavored to learn their meaning from my scouts, but even the oldest of them were unable to tell much about them. They were placed there, they said, by spirits, and every few snows the spirits caused what they had written to disappear and replaced it with something else. The white men, they added, know more than the Crows and ought therefore to be better able than themselves to tell what the spirit meant.

Graffiti is inherently more or less cryptic—a piece of a puzzle. Only the writer and his or her cohorts fully understand what's behind it.

1. Bob Saindon, "They Left Their Mark: Tracing the Obscure Graffiti of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," We Proceeded On, Vol. 13, No. 3 (August, 1987).