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Lewis & Clark, Pompeys Pillar, and bison in Montana

In 1800 there were approximately 30 million bison in the American West. Because of market hunters hunting hides, and passengers randomly shooting buffalo out of transcontinental trains, as well as habitat destruction and other factors, that number of animals dropped to less than 1,000 bison by 1890. (Bob Dean/Views of Nature Photography)

Returning home from the Pacific Ocean and a wet winter at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was delighted to enter the thick grasslands of eastern Montana. Instead of rain they had sunshine, and instead of “pore elk,” vast bison herds stretched in all directions on both sides of the Yellowstone River.

On a sandstone bluff high enough to see for miles to the east and west, Capt. William Clark did something he hadn’t done over the last three years and 6,000 miles of hard travel. He carved his name and date on the bluff. Of course, tribes had passed through the area for millenia on foot and for a few centuries on horseback. They had other names for the bluff. But Clark named it after their interpreter Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, whom he nicknamed Pomp, which was short for Pompey. The infant and his mother traveled with Clark in a dugout canoe. They were in a hurry to return to St. Louis, but at this site on the Montana prairies, they lingered.

I got to the bluff early on a May morning and took in the snow-scented Yellowstone River moving swiftly through a lovely canopy of cottonwood and elm trees with an exposed, treeless bluff on the other side. I climbed modern steps up to Clark’s historic inscription and there it was behind glass and surrounded by other pioneer names and dates. The story goes that railroad surveyors working west had found the inscription and placed a glass-covered steel case over it for protection. The sandstone bluff became a National Historic Landmark. Under President Bill Clinton, it became a Bureau of Land Management National Monument within the system of National Conservation Lands. At 51 acres, it’s one of the smallest monuments in the system, but its small size does not reflect its larger historical importance.

Clark called it Pompeys Tower but historian Nicholas Biddle, who edited the Lewis and Clark journals, changed the name to Pompeys Pillar. In the heart of Crow Indian country, the sandstone outcropping would have been used for vision quest sites. In Crow legends the bluff was formed by a Supreme Power who broke the pillar free from adjacent sandstone and moved it across the river. “The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c near which I marked my name and the day of the month and year, July 25, 1806,” Clark confided to his journal.

Clark climbed the same rock I did. He wrote, “This rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction … After Satisfying my Self Sufficiently in this delightful prospect of the extensive Country around, and the emence herds of Buffalow, Elk, and wolves in which it abounded, I descended and proceeded on …” Correct spelling was not the Captain’s strong suit, but he may be excused because Merriam Webster had yet to publish the first American dictionary.

Clark saw huge herds of game. I saw bridges, round hay bales, and a crossroad for travelers. We both heard birdsong, geese flying over, the “cooing” of sandhill cranes, and the movement of mountain water. Clark passed by in 1806. In 1873 a Lieutenant Colonel rode through as head of the Yellowstone Expedition with dozens of troops, wagons full of supplies, reporters, and even a brass band. George Armstrong Custer would lie about finding “gold in the roots of the grass” in the Black Hills and three years later he would die in that grass above the Little Bighorn.

Lewis & Clark have given us accounts of the American West before fences, railroads, towns, and electric transmission lines. Their journals describe seeing many elk, deer, wolves and bison, millions of bison, so many bison, that one moving herd blocked their path for most of a day. After a long, difficult row coming up the Missouri River the fatigued men lay down to sleep one night not knowing that they camped on a major buffalo pathway. A huge bull crossed the river in the dark and would have smashed canoes and possibly injured and killed men if not for Lewis’s big, black Newfoundland dog, which barked frantically. The bull shied away with only a few feet to spare.

The sandstone bluff that Capt. William Clark named after Sacagawea’s son whom Clark had nicknamed Pompey or Pomp for short, has a commanding view of the prairie in eastern Montana. (Bob Dean/Views of Nature Photography)

Bison were everywhere on the plains and Lewis & Clark reveled in seeing them knowing that fresh meat was close at hand. Now, over two centuries later, we’ve fenced the plains, replaced buffalo with cattle, and dramatically altered millions of acres of American landscapes. But there are always dreamers among us. Two men 23 years ago decided to bring bison back to eastern Montana. They started a highly successful nonprofit named American Prairie, but in the process have alienated the governor and state legislature who do not share the same ecological vision. American Prairie founders Sean Gerrity and Curtis Freese want to set the conservation clock back to the time of Lewis & Clark and they’ve raised the money to do so.

The founding principle of American capitalism and a free enterprise system is that if you desire something, you buy it. Across the nation a newly invigorated conservation community is doing just that. Rural America is changing because of successful marketing campaigns that raise urban and suburban dollars. In the case of American Prairie they’ve bought from willing sellers ranches totally 420,000 acres and hope to combine their private holdings with grazing lands along the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument (2001), another Clinton-era designation of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands, and the even larger Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (1936) at 916,000 acres, which also stretches along the Missouri River.

It’s a grand vision and one of the ways to implement bison range is to have volunteers with thick gloves and heavy boots (rattlesnakes like this prairie turf, too) take down miles of barbed wire fence. “Society must be willing to allow bison to recoup some of the landscapes they’ve been removed from if we want the species to succeed,” nodes Kurt Repanshek in Re-Bisoning the West: Restoring an American Icon to the Landscape. “They should be given the opportunity to thrive not as open-air zoo specimens but as ecologically functioning engineers on the land.”

If there was no whitewater in the Yellowstone River, Corps member could lash their dugout canoes together and “barge-up” to paddle quickly downstream. These two dugouts from Pompeys Pillar National Monument replicate that technique. (Bob Dean/ Views of Nature Photography)

Because those Montana ranches had thousands of acres of federal grazing land, most of it controlled by the BLM, American Prairie has asked to change its grazing permits for cattle to grazing permits for bison. There’s the political rub. Montana politicians fear the loss of cowboys. “The epic idea is to re-create the American Serengeti with a preserve of 3.5 million acres, half again as large as Yellowstone,” notes environmental historian Dan Flores in his excellent new book Wild New World. “AP managers want to see twelve thousand or so bison roam free across private and public lands. Even more exciting, they want the full suite of Great Plains wildlife back.” That would include endangered black-footed ferrets, bighorns, pronghorns, elk, bison, and perhaps even grizzlies, which have been heading east out of Yellowstone out on to the prairies where Lewis & Clark first encountered them.

But rather than support what would surely be an international tourist destination, Montana’s Republican governor and Montana attorney general have sued the BLM to block bison reintroduction on public lands. However, The Daily Montanan reports that in a “yearslong dispute” the governor’s administration has “taken on American prairie only to lose nearly every attempt” to limit their access to federal and state lands. Indeed, American Prairie has momentum.

Standing atop Pompeys Pillar in July of 1806, Capt. Clark saw “emence herds of Buffalow.” He could never have imagined that by 1890 there would only be 1,000 bison left, but bison are back, their genetics are strong, and maybe even in Montana they’ll find a home on the range.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.