Greetings From: Pompeys Pillar, MT

by Michael Boyink/ mike@douglascountyherald.com

35 men.

Gone 2 years, 4 months, and 10 days.

Traveling 8000 miles.

Spending the equivalent of $870K in today’s dollars.

Dealing with dysentery, VD, boils, ticks, hailstorms, grizzly bears, stolen horses, a stolen dog, tense standoffs with locals, and a near-miss by a Spanish delegation sent to capture and imprison them.

Still, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 – 1806 was successful.

140 maps created of land that would become 11 states.

178 new plants identified.

122 animals categorized.

A number of mineral, rock, and fossil samples gathered.

Diplomatic relations established with two dozen indigenous nations.

The expedition also rose above social norms of the time being both gender and race inclusive. They employed a female, Native American guide. Others were French-Canadian, French-Indian, and African American. At one point, the group took a vote and included everyone.

The expedition embodied “Manifest Destiny” and helped fuel the westward expansion of the United States.

Or at least that’s what we all learned in school.

But, as usual, there’s another side to the story.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition failed at one of its primary goals: finding the so-called “Northwest Passage” – a direct water route from the Missouri River to the Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean.

 

They weren’t the first people to see the land they explored, white or otherwise. Most of their travels were on existing Indian trails, also used by trappers and traders. 

Their cross-continent route went too far north to be useful by others. The maps they brought back were inaccurate.

Actual details about Sacajawea are scarce. But one thing is certain – she was not the primary guide.

For Native Americans, Lewis and Clark might as well have been spreading a plague. 

Within 100 years after the expedition passed through, every indigenous group they had encountered had lost their lands and had been placed on reservations. Forests were cleared and buffalo herds were decimated.

And all those plants, animals, and other specimens and artifacts sent back by Lewis and Clark?

Some never made it, sinking with the ship that carried them. What did survive was split up. President Jefferson got some. Some were exported to England. Some made it to museums. Other artifacts were stored in attics, sold, or stolen. Some burned in fires. Some were discarded as trash.

The main problem?

No one cared. 

Journals from the expedition didn’t get published on schedule. The War of 1812 came along. Then the Civil War. Other explorers found fame promoting more accessible routes west.

In a sense, Lewis & Clark only just became famous. A historic trail was established in 1978. Stephen Ambrose wrote a book in 1996. Ken Burns did a documentary in 1997. 

And Pompeys Pillar – a 200’ tall rock formation alongside the Yellowstone River in Montana bearing William Clark’s signature chiseled into the stone – became a National Monument in 2001.

Pompeys Pillar rises 200’ above the Yellowstone River. Many travelers besides Clark have left their mark on the rock surface.

 

That signature is the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition along the original route.

Historic graffiti – this signature of William Clark is the only remaining physical evidence along the route of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Was the Lewis and Clark Expedition a foundational building block for America? 

Or is their story merely a convenient skeleton to hang some politically-correct modern myths on, and help us feel good about the means by which America became the country that it is?

I’ll leave that one to you.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument is located 30 miles east of Billings, Montana. It’s named after Sacagawea’s son Jean Baptiste Charbonneua, whom Clark had nicknamed “Pompy.” Learn more at pompeyspillar.org.