Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Back on the road: Pompey's Pillar


After leaving Helena, the three intrepid explorers (My brother-in-law Mike, my sister Jolene and me) continued on our journey toward their home in Minnesota. The point of our trip wasn’t to get back to Minnesota in record time but to see as many interesting things that we could. Our journey kept on crossing and recrossing the path of Lewis and Clark who had gone this way over 200 years before.

Unlike us, zooming down the highway with a car full of water and snacks and a sometimes uncooperative GPS (aka Ms Gizmo &*!! expletive deleted), Lewis and Clark traveled without roads, bridges, a map and sometimes in blissful ignorance as when Lewis separated from the main group and explored the Yellowstone Valley, right in the middle of the fierce and powerful Blackfeet tribe.

But Lewis and Clark did have friendly Indians to help them along their way, thanks to Sacagawea and her son, born in February 1803. Named after his father, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the cries of the healthy young boy announced the arrival of a new member of the Corps of Discovery.

No one, it seemed, contemplated leaving Sacagawea and her infant son behind–when the party set out up the Missouri in April 1805, Sacagawea carried Jean Baptiste on her back in an Indian cradleboard. Nicknamed “Pomp” or “Pompey” by Clark, who developed a strong attachment to the boy, Jean Baptiste accompanied his mother on every step of her epic journey to the Pacific and back.


Mother and son both were invaluable to the expedition. As hoped, Sacagawea’s services as a translator played a pivotal role in securing horses from the Shoshone. Jean Baptiste’s presence also proved unexpectedly useful by helping to convince the Indians the party encountered that their intentions were peaceful-no war party, the Indians reasoned, would bring along a mother and infant.

When the Corps of Discovery returned east in 1805, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Jean Baptiste resumed the fur-trading life. Little is known of Sacagawea’s subsequent fate, though a fur trader claimed she died of a “putrid fever” in 1812 at a Missouri River trading post. True to a promise he had made to Sacagawea during the expedition, Clark paid for Jean Baptiste’s education at a St. Louis Catholic academy and became something of an adoptive father to the boy. A bright and charismatic young man, Jean Baptiste learned French, German, and Spanish, hunted with noblemen in the Black Forest of Germany, traveled in Africa, and returned to further explore the American West. He died in 1866 en route to the newly discovered gold fields of Montana. Jean Baptiste deserves a separate post for his life was amazing.

But back to the expedition as they paused at Traveler's Rest from June 30 to July 3, 1806, Lewis and Clark decided that it would be best to divide the group into separate parties, maximizing their exploratory range. Clark and his party traversed Bozeman Pass, set out down the Yellowstone River, and headed for the caches at Beaverhead. Along the way, the crew came across a prominent rock formation, located on the south bank of the river in present-day Nibbe, Montana. Naming the anomalous natural formation after Sacagawea's child Jean Baptiste Charbonneau or 'Pomp', Clark wrote of the discovery in his journal that evening:  

 . . "At 4PM [I] arrived at the remarkable rock situated in an extensive bottom.This rock I ascended and from it's top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall call Pompy's Tower is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumpherance and only axcessible on one side which is from the N.E. the other parts of it being a perpendicular clift of lightish coloured gritty rock.The Indians have made 2 piles of stone on the top of this tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c." (Jones 2000, 185-186)

Clark, too, left his mark at Pompey's Pillar, engraving his name and the date into the stone; still visible, his mark is probably the only extant on-site evidence of the entire expedition.




 But the pillar’s importance to the native people of the region goes back centuries. Pompey’s Pillar is within the territory historically acknowledged as the homeland of the Apsaalooke, or Crow people. The Pillar’s name in the Crow language, Iishbiiammaache, is variously translated as “Where the Mountain Lion Lies,” “The Mountain Lion’s Lodge,” or “Where the Mountain Lion Preys.”

Pompey's Pillar is at a strategic ford of the Yellowstone, and its remarkable appearance virtually guaranteed its place as a natural landmark for the native people of the Northern Plains through the region’s more than 11,000 years of occupation.

In addition to the Crow people, Pompey's Pillar has been a landmark to numerous other American Indian people, including members of the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfeet and Salish tribes.

Archaeological evidence of past occupation of the Pillar area by Native Americans has been discovered at various depths below ground. These materials appear to be the remains of hunting and living camps, probably occupied by relatively small groups of people for short periods of time. The remains of butchered bison and other animals along with mussels from the nearby Yellowstone River are scattered among flaked stone tools and debris around small surface hearths. The ancient camps were buried by slow-moving flood waters soon after abandonment, preserving organic and other materials in place, with later occupations leaving remains on the new, higher surfaces.

The Yellowstone River has long been of significance to the Crow people. Clark made several entries in his journals seeing “signs” of the Crow, but never actually encountered them. On July 18, 1806, he noted seeing the “Smoke” of the Crow Indians. On July 19th, the Clark party passed an “old indian fort on an island,” and one expedition member, George Shannon, reported that there was a “remarkable Lodge” downstream near the mouth of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River (now managed by BLM). The Yellowstone Valley has long been the heart of Crow Country and is steeped in Crow history.

The Pillar was used for centuries as a favored campsite by Crows and other groups as they traveled through the area on hunting, trading, war or other expeditions. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggest that the Pillar was also a place of ritual and religious activity. In his journal, Clark noted evidence of Native American presence, “The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals....”

The presence of aboriginal rock art is an indicator of ritual behavior. The placement of prehistoric rock art in the Northern Plains is not random. It is clear that the places where rock art occurs were place of importance to the ancient artists. Pictographs and petroglyphs have been found on the Pillar.

It was a hot day when we pulled into the parking lot and I didn’t feel like walking out to the pillar. It's fenced in to keep out those wanting to climb the rock and those who would deface it. But I could see the Yellowstone River not too far in the distance and again, with the power of imagination, “saw” the group with my heroine Sacagawea and her little boy, paddling down the river on their way back to St. Louis. Or they may have been walking - many of their horses were stolen by various Indian groups.


Some day, time and energy permitting, I would like to retrace their steps, either from their starting point or from the Columbia River and back . But if I can’t do it in person, I can always trace their journey via the Internet. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/lewisandclark/index.htm    

Note: Obviously I didn't know any of this in advance but travel made me curious and the Internet provided a lot of information. I also recommend Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage. Merriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. "

Next - the flat lands of North Dakota

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