Plaques on Pompey's Pillar
To learn more, click the four plaques in the photo.
Detail from a photo by Brent Phelps
On the relatively sheltered face of Pompy's Tower where Clark engraved his tag in 1806 are three expressions of official, collective graffiti, dignified in bronze. In 1928, the Billings chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution commemorated the patriotic significance of the Expedition with a plaque. In 1938, members of the Masonic Lodge in Billings acknowledged their own brotherly links with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, both of whom were Freemasons. The third tablet is a memorial to Don Foote, a local real estate developer, farmer, and amateur historian, who purchased the land around it in 1965, to ensure its preservation.
Pompeys Pillar—editor Nicholas Biddle's guess as to what Clark meant; the name-minding federal Board of Geographic Names deletes apostrophes—is now the center of a state park. Surveillance cameras help rangers apprehend a number of would-be graffitists each year, in the act of embellishing the famous rock with memorials to themselves.
A comprehensive study of the markings on Pompeys Pillar has recently been undertaken by Minot State University, so we know there is a total of some 2,500 tags on all surfaces of the rock, not counting those that were on chunks of sandstone that have fallen, face down, on the ground around it.
This plaque reads: "In memoriam, p.m., and William Clark, members of Pa lodge #711, subsequently Tenn Lodge #12, subsequently Missouri Lodge #1, A.F. & A.M. This tablet placed by Billings Lodge #113 A.F. & A.M., at a meeting of the Lodge held here June 20, 1938."
The abbreviation "p.m." stands for "past master." "A.F. & A.M." is the abbreviation for "Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons."
Lewis was elected to membership in the brotherhood of Freemasons on January 28, 1797, and rose quickly through the consecutive Degrees until he attained the status of Past Master Mason in early April. Two years later he advanced to the level of Royal Arch Mason in Widow's Son Lodge, Milton, Virginia, a village situated about thirty miles down the James River from Richmond.
Three years after the expedition, on September 18, 1809, William Clark was admitted to St. Louis Lodge No. 111, A.F. & A.M., which Lewis had helped establish a year earlier.
As Stephen Ambrose has pointed out, Lewis took the ritual and idealism of the Masons quite seriously, even naming three tributaries of Jefferson's River for three virtues celebrated in Masonic ritual—Philosophy, Wisdom, and Philanthropy.
Eldon G. Chuinard, Lewis and Clark: Master Masons, We Proceeded On, Vol. 15, No. 1 (February, 1989).
Stella and Don Foote
They purchased Pompeys Pillar in order to preserve it for us.
The preservation of key points along the Lewis and Clark Trail, at least among those we can identify with reasonable accuracy, is a basis for the continued study and growing appreciation of the meaning of the whole endeavor, and of no place are we more sure of than Pompeys Pillar. Until the middle of the 20th century, the work of protecting it, and the single piece of material evidence of the Expedition's presence, in the hands of passersby such as Lt. Bradley and his fellow officers, who scolded the benighted Irish infantryman who "went over" part of Clark's autograph. In 1882 an official of the Northern Pacific Railroad took the responsibility for protecting the inscription with an iron grille, of which the anchor holes may be seen in the above photo.
In the Fort Laramie treaty of 1851, the land it occupies was returned to the Crow Indians as part of their reservation, but the Homestead Act of 1862 and subsequent amendments opened it to homesteaders. After 1900, with the opening of the nearby, historic Huntley Irrigation District, the rock and its adjacant fields passed through a number of private owners.
In 1955, Mr. and Mrs. Don C. Foote, local historians and civic leaders, purchased the rock and 105 surrounding acres, developed it into "Pompeys Pillar Monument Park," and opened it to the public as a fee site for two years. It was closed to the public from 1958 until 1965, when it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and subsequently reopened. Operating costs continued to rise, however, and in 1991, at the urging of a citizens' action group that was to become the Pompeys Pillar Historical Association, the Bureau of Land Management purchased the site and some surrounding cropland.
On January 17, 2001, President William Clinton, invoking the Antiquities Act of 1906, elevated it to the status of a National Monument. Meanwhile, another threat, this time to the Monument's viewshed, drew the attention of the Crow Tribe and the Pompeys Pillar Historical Association.
Further information of a general nature is available at the Pompeys Pillar National Monument web site, http://www.mt.blm.gov/pillarmon/
This bronze plaque, erected by the local chapter of the DAR, reads:
Pompeys Pillar, dedicated and named by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, July 25, 1806. With Clark, returning down the Yellowstone were Pryor, Shannon, Bratton, Windsor, Hall, Shields, Gibson, Labiche, Carbonneau, Sacagawea, and child, York the slave. In gratitude to Lewis and Clark, those intrepid leaders, to Sacagawea, their unerring guide, and to the fidelity and courage of all the company, this tablet is dedicated by Shining Mountain Chapter, Daughters of the American revolution, Billings, Montana, May 24, 1928.
The national society of Daughters of the American Revolution was founded in 1890 with three objectives: "to perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American Independence"; to promote, as George Washington urged Americans in his farewell address as president, " . . . institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge, thus developing an enlightened public opinion;" and "to cherish, maintain and extend the institutions of American freedom, to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty."
From its beginnings the DAR established leadership in the development of historic preservation in the U.S., largely by erecting memorials such as this.
The first steamboat to ascend the Yellowstone as far as Pompeys Pillar was the Josephine, commanded by the famous Missouri River captain, Grant Marsh (1834–1916), with a team of railroad right-of-way surveyors and a military escort. That was in June of 1875. Captain Marsh celebrated his achievement by scribing his ships name in the sandstone, and by "nailing Old Glory to a stout staff on top of the Pillar, where he left it an emblem of Columbia's supremacy over the lonely land." Joe Bailey, a member of the military escort, engraved his own tag on the far side of the rock from Clark's.
On April 17, 1876, the 7th U.S. Infantry, marching down the Yellowstone, bivouacked a few hundred yards downstream from Pompeys Pillar. On the 18th, 32-year-old Lt. James H. Bradley wrote in his journal:
Our boys have been busy all day transmitting their names to posterity by carving them in the soft sandstone of Pompey's Pillar. Captain Clark . . . on the occasion of his descent of the Yellowstone in 1806, discovered the rock and gave it its name. "Wm. Clark, July 26, 1806" is the inscription he left behind, and it still appears as distinctly as when graven there seventy years ago.
But a cavalry vandal today disfigured the inscription by carving his own wretched name over the letter "K", for which he deserves to be pilloried. When taken to task about it he is said to have defended himself by saying: "Be Jases, it's a dom lie anyhow, for there wuz niver a white man in this country sivinty years ago."
He remarked on the S.S. Josephine's name on the rock, and then, somewhat sympathetically, mentioned the disappointment many of the other officers felt at the sight of this famous landmark, for they had expected to find a slender shaft standing needle-like above its surroundings. "The name is something of a misnomer," he pointed out.
Lt. Bradley missed the fateful battle on the Little Bighorn just four months later, but was killed in the Battle of the Big Hole with the non-treaty Nez Perce bands in August of 1877. Evidently he was a serious student of the Lewis and Clark expedition; his duffel contained three copies of the captains' journals and two of Patrick Gass's.