In addition to William Clark’s signature, Pompeys Pillar is marked with over 5,000 of other etchings and drawings. Fur trappers of the early 1800s, military expeditions, railroad workers, and early settlers used the sandstone as a registry of their passing.
With the discovery of gold in western Montana and the homesteading elsewhere, the first large-scale incursion of European-Americans underway. The Yellowstone River served as a major transportation corridor, bringing trade goods and supplies as far as Billings, Montana, about 25 miles upstream from Pompeys Pillar. In 1875, Captain Grant Marsh, pilot of the steamboat Josephine, became the first to raise an American flag on the summit of Pompeys Pillar.
1873 Campsite of Army and Surveyors
The middle and lower Yellowstone country was filled with troops during the middle 1870s. The third transcontinental railroad survey expedition made its way through the middle Yellowstone Valley in 1873. On March 15, 1873, this group of about 375 civilian surveyors and more than 1,500 cavalry and infantry troops, including 10 companies of the 7th Calvary under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, camped at the mouth of Pompeys Pillar Creek, across the Yellowstone from Pompeys Pillar. On the morning of March 16, 1873, American Indians who had worked their way into the brush at the base of Pompeys Pillar fired on the troops.
Northern Pacific Railroad and Pompeys Pillar Railroad Station
The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1882 and provided transportation through the Yellowstone River Valley. Passengers stopping at the Northern Pacific Railroad station a half mile south of the Pillar routinely visited the Pillar to view Clark’s inscription. In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad decided to protect Clark’s signature by covering it with a heavy iron screen.
By the late 19th century, the agricultural potential of the rich Yellowstone River valley had become apparent to settlers, land speculators and Congress. Although much of the Yellowstone Valley, including Pompeys Pillar, lay within the boundaries of the Crow Reservation, legislation directed the Crow tribe to cede the Yellowstone Valley. The lands were settled shortly after the turn of the 20th century when the Huntley Irrigation District was established.