John Colter’s leg muscles were burning and his lungs were aching, but he kept his legs moving. As he glanced over his shoulder he could see that most of the Blackfoot warriors chasing him were far behind now, but there was one far ahead of the others, and he was closing the distance. Blood was spotting the grass and dirt behind him from foot and legs wounds he’d gotten from the prickly pear cactus the naked man had been running through. Still, he had hope of seeing another sunrise. He could see a grove of cottonwood trees ahead that marked the Madison River. If only he could reach it, perhaps he could defy the odds against him and survive.
Pushing himself even harder, he suddenly felt blood begin to gush from his nose. He choked and coughed as it dripped down his bearded chin and began to splatter over his bare, heaving chest. He had reached a crisis point of his life, and quite possibly the end of it. Death was on his heels and gaining fast. The young, swift Blackfoot warrior would certainly catch him now that the blood was inhibiting his breathing. If he kept running he could expect to feel the warrior’s spear piercing his back at any moment. If he was going to die, he would die with his face to the foe. Colter waited until the warrior had nearly caught him and abruptly spun on his heels to confront him.
("Colter's Race for Life" by Charles Russell. He probably has the trailing Blackfeet warrior too close, and also portrayed Colter without a beard.)
In addition to the surprise of seeing his prey suddenly turn to fight, the warrior was confronted with a vision that must have seemed straight out of the bowels of hell. Colter’s beard was dripping blood. His white chest was coated with crimson streaks of gore as he screamed out what he may have expected to be his death cry. It had to be both startling and frightening for the young brave, who was also as fatigued as Colter. As he raised his spear to impale Colter, he toppled forward, breaking the shaft of the spear as the point embedded itself in the ground. Knowing this was his chance, Colter pounced. He had to kill or incapacitate him quickly, before the rest of the Blackfoot arrived. The two fatigued combatants began their death struggle.
Though the name of John Colter is little known among most Americans, to those familiar with the early explorers of the American West known as the mountain men, he is a legend. Some have called him “the first Mountain Man,” though it’s probably impossible to really bestow that title on any one man without insulting the legacy of many others.
(Left: Drawing of a mountain man by famous Western artist Frederick Remington.)
General Thomas James, who knew Colter in the years after the Lewis & Clark expedition, and author of “Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans,” said of Colter: “He was about 35 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches in height and wore an open, ingenious, and pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone stamp. Nature had formed him, like Boone, for hardy endurance of fatigue, privations and perils.”
Colter was born near Stuarts Draft in the Colony of Virginia in the mid-1770s. Both sides of his family traced their roots back to the Irish province of Ulster. While John was a child, the family moved west and settled near present-day Maysville, Kentucky. Kentucky was the western frontier of the United States then, and John grew up developing the wilderness skills that would serve him well as an adult. It was in Maysville on October 15, 1803, that Colter made the decision that would alter his life forever when he met Meriwether Lewis and enlisted in Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery. He was one of the first recruits, known as the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky." The other eight were William Bratton, Joseph Field, Reubin Field, Charles Floyd, George Gibson, Nathaniel Pryor, George Shannon, and John Shields.
For a young frontiersman like Colter, it must have seemed the adventure of a lifetime, as it certainly has for millions who have read of that remarkable expedition since then. Lewis and Clark were not accepting just anyone for this grueling, dangerous trek, however. They wanted only, “good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.” From that list of qualifications, we can assume that the blue-eyed, 5’ 10’ Colter, who was nearing 30 years old, was in excellent physical condition. All the members were enlisted into the U.S. Army for the duration of the expedition.
During the winter, as the Corps prepared in Camp Dubois, near present-day Wood River, Illinois, Colter and some of the others had some problems adjusting to military discipline and the boredom of the long wait to get started in the spring. Twice Colter was in trouble for excessive drinking. The boredom that caused some of those problems would soon be the least of their problems, however, and Colter would have no further disciplinary problems. On May 14, 1804, Colter set sail up the Missouri River with the rest of the 31 men of the Corps on one of the most famous explorations in U.S. history on a keel boat (right) and two pirogues.
Colter quickly established himself as one of the better hunters and trackers in the group. In September, near present day Yankton, South Dakota, he was sent out to unsuccessfully search for the temporarily lost youngest member of the Corps, George Shannon. Colter kept hunting while trying to track Shannon, however, and John Ordway reported he bagged “one buffelow, one elk, 3 deer, one wolf, 5 turkies and one goose, one beaver also,” quite an impressive haul. This hunting was vital for the expedition, since the long trip would require living off the land.
Below: Meriweather Lewis (left) and William Clark.
Colter’s adventures during the trip to the Pacific and back could fill a book, but as this article is more concerned with his “mountain man” days that followed than his experiences with Lewis and Clark, that will be left for another day. A few incidents are worth noting, however. In September 1805, near the Bitter Root River in Montana, Colter was hunting alone when he came on three Indians of the Tushepaw Flathead tribe who "were alarmed and prepared for battle with their bows and arrows." With death staring him in the face, he remembered an Indian custom. Laying his rifle on the ground, he advanced with his open hands raised. It worked. Not only did he save his own life, one of them became their guide westward through the land of the Flathead.
Two months later, Colter was one of the Corps who first saw the Pacific Ocean. Two incidents on the return trip would have a profound effect on Colter’s post-expedition life. He was not present for the first one. On July 26, 1806, after Lewis and Clark had separated the group for a time near the upper Missouri River, Lewis and a small group of the Corps had a confrontation with a small group of Blackfoot Indians on the Two Medicine River in Montana. Two of the young Blackfeet were killed. The Blackfeet would go on to be one of the most strident enemies of the mountain men and later American incursions into the Upper Plains. Some attribute their future hostility to this incident. John Colter and other members of the Corps would feel their wrath in the coming years.
The second life-changing incident happened after the Corps reunited on the Missouri. Just before stopping to rest at a Mandan village (right) in present day North Dakota, they encountered Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, two trappers who intended to continue up stream and trap along the upper Missouri and its tributaries, about which they knew very little. After more than two years in the wilderness, one might think Colter would be anxious to return to civilization, but he would now exhibit the mindset that those we know as mountain men would match in the coming three decades. The call of the wilderness was stronger in his soul than that of civilization and there was also the possibility of turning his knowledge of the beaver streams of the upper Missouri into cash, hopefully, a lot of cash.
On August 13, 1806 Colter asked the captains if he could leave the Corps and go back up the Missouri with Hancock and Dickson. They agreed to formally discharge Colter from the U.S. Army, provided the other members of the Corps agreed not to ask to depart before they got back to St. Louis, a request to which they agreed. Clark explained, ". . . we were disposed to be of service to any one of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done." Some time in mid-August Colter left with his new partners back up the Missouri and began his career as a mountain man. It would be the first American trapping partnership in the Rocky Mountains.
Unfortunately, Colter left no account behind, nor did Hancock or Dickson but it is believed they moved down the Yellowstone River to trap rather than continuing up the Missouri. That decision was probably made because the Yellowstone led to the lands of the Crow tribe, whom the Corps of Discovery found to be quite friendly, while the Missouri led into the territory of the Blackfeet. Though there is no proof, it is believed they wintered on Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, near present day Billings, Montana. One of the reasons beaver trapping was such an arduous undertaking was that beaver pelts are in their prime during the winter. During that winter, Colter may have become the first American to enter the Sunlight Basin of modern-day Wyoming.
Though there were certainly abundant beaver in the region, Colter’s collaboration with Hancock and Dickson was not successful. Even if trappers caught large numbers of beaver, there were various disasters that could ruin a successful season. Beaver pelts were also valuable for the various Indian tribes in the region, so theft was always a danger. Transporting the pelts down a rapidly moving river in a canoe could also result in a catastrophic loss. Whatever the reason for their failed enterprise, by the spring of 1807 Colter had left the partnership and was heading back down the Missouri alone. That trip down the Missouri by himself, through hundreds of miles of hostile Indian territory, would be the most epic adventure of many men's lives. For Colter, it is barely a footnote.
Colter was finally returning from the wilderness three years after saying goodbye to Lewis and Clark. He got a lot closer to St. Louis than the year before, but he once again didn’t make it. After hundreds of miles of paddling his canoe along the empty Missouri, suddenly he saw keel boats docked on the shore in the distance.
Near where the Platte River meets the Missouri, just south of present-day Omaha, Nebraska, Colter ran into another trapping expedition headed up the Missouri. This was a much larger group, about 40 men, and was the first large-scale fur-trapping expedition to the upper Missouri. It was led by one of the most famous figures of the early fur trade, Manuel Lisa (right), one of the founders of the Missouri Fur Trading Co. a year later. Also in the party were five other veterans of the Lewis and Clark expedition: George Drouillard, Jean-Baptiste Lepage, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor.
It’s no surprise that Lisa was immediately interested in the knowledge of a man who was returning from trapping the same region they intended to trap. And so, for a second time, Colter was convinced to turn around and head back into the wilderness. Lisa did not intend to simply trap the region and come back. His plan was to build a fort somewhere in the upper Missouri River basin as a base for both trapping and for trade with the Indian tribes. It’s likely that Drouillard, who had been with Lewis in the fight with the Blackfeet, and Colter advised Lisa to go down the Yellowstone when they reached it to avoid the Blackfeet.
The site Lisa chose for his fort was the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers (see map above left). He named it Fort Raymond, but most people called it “Manuel’s Fort.” It would include the first permanent buildings in what is now the state of Montana. Lisa intended to have his men trap beaver, but he also wanted to trade with the local tribes, especially the Crow. Nearby Crow villages may have heard of the trading post, but Lisa wanted to pass the word to the Crow and any other tribes they might find spread out across present day northwest Wyoming. It was a perilous mission that could only be undertaken by one of the most experienced, resilient men in the group. Lisa chose John Colter.
The journey Colter began that October 1807 would become a legend among the mountain men for decades to come, and to those who study the mountain men to this day. Alone, with a pack of some 30 pounds, much of it trading goods to earn him good will with any villages he found, and his rifle, Colter set out to the southwest from the fort. It was a journey that would take him on a winding circuit of some 500 miles through some of the most famous natural wonders of the West. It would be a treacherous journey today to undertake through those mountains and valleys in the dead of winter, with good maps and modern camping equipment, never mind under the primitive conditions he had to undertake it. Colter was moving out into an unknown wilderness with no plan beyond finding Indian villages. The totally unknown terrain he would encounter would dictate his travels.
(Left: Speculative map of Colter's route.)
Colter’s exact route will never be known for certain, but it is likely he started down the Shoshone River down past where Cody, Wyoming, is today. It was called the “Stinkingwater” or “Stinking River” at the time because it gave off the smell of sulfur.
As he moved up the river, Colter would discover the source of that smell. What he found was the sort of thermal activity we now see in Yellowstone National Park, miles west of there -- geysers, hot springs and mud pots that made the river stink of hydrogen sulfide. This must have been quite a shocking and perhaps even a bit frightening discovery for Colter. It must have seemed as if he was exploring an alien planet. It was certainly not anything he would have expected to find. It’s doubtful he was even aware that such thermal phenomenon occurred anywhere on earth.
(Above: What the sort of thermal activity Colter found looks like from a distance in winter.)
Colter’s journey had barely started and already he had run into a startlingly unexpected geography. He then is thought to have moved down the south fork of the Stinking River (Shoshone, right). It was a favorite wintering area for the Crow, so he may have made contacts with them along it to spread news of the trading post. It’s likely that he got members of the Crow tribe to act as guides for him during various parts of his journey. He probably then went through the mountains from the Wind River area, crossing the Wind River Mountains, probably at Togwotee Pass, where he crossed the Continental Divide.
Colter then moved southwest and became the first known American to enter the famous Jackson Hole area of western Wyoming. He passed over the Teton Mountains through Teton Pass, west of the present-day town of Jackson and up through Pierre’s Hole. In 1931, a famer named William Beard found a piece of rhyolite lava crudely carved in the shape of a human head, with “John Colter” scrawled on one side and “1808” on the other. Though its authenticity hasn’t been confirmed, Beard apparently had no idea who John Colter was. He later traded it for a pair of boots, suggesting the item was not a fake created to sell for a handsome profit.
One must remember that Colter was doing this southern portion of his trek in the dead of winter, probably using snowshoes to make his way through deep snow in these valleys and mountains. It’s likely he holed up for a time near where the “Colter Stone” was found. He then moved north, past the western side of Yellowstone Lake. Though he probably didn’t see the famous “Old Faithful” geyser which was further to the west, he certainly would have seen some of the 10,000 hydrothermal features that can be seen throughout the area and also the spectacular “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” north of the lake.
When Colter finally arrived back at Manuel’s Fort, probably sometime in the late spring, many had given him up for dead. Most were a bit skeptical about this tales of the strange thermal phenomenon he’d discovered. The area west of Cody came to be known as “Colter’s Hell,” partly in jest, because the other trappers thought it was a “tall tale” by Colter until some of them later saw similar areas for themselves. Today the thermal activity in “Colter’s Hell” has ceased. Some people incorrectly think “Colter’s Hell” was a name used for the more famous thermal areas in Yellowstone.
Lisa then gave Colter the unenviable task of trying to convince the Blackfeet to trade with the fort. Setting off up the Yellowstone, he ended up joining in with a hunting group of friendly Flat Head and Crow. He may have known some of them from either his Lewis and Clark days, or from his recent journey. Both were enemies of the Blackfeet, however, so joining them may have been a miscalculation.
(Left: A Blackfoot warrior.)
They were on the Gallatin River when a huge war party of Blackfeet attacked them. Though outnumbered, they beat off the Blackfeet with the assistance of the accurate fire of Colter, who was wounded in the leg during the battle. The effective firing of the American in the group did not go unnoticed by the Blackfeet. Whether he was personally identified as an enemy by them, it was yet another indication for them that the American was not their friend.
When he had healed, Colter and his old friend from the expedition, John Potts, entered into a trapping partnership in the fall of 1808. They boldly went into the Blackfoot-controlled Three Forks area of the upper Missouri. They attempted to avoid them by laying their traps at night and picking them up in the early morning, but one morning their luck ran out on the Jefferson River. It would lead to one of the most famous incidents in the annals of the mountain men, often called “Colter’s Run.”
When they suddenly found themselves surrounded by several hundred Blackfeet on both sides of the river, thinking resistance was suicide, Colter surrendered himself. But Potts attempted to resist, shooting one of the warriors, and was killed, being “made a riddle of” with Blackfoot arrows. Colter was stripped naked. The Blackfeet pulled Pott’s body ashore and “cut and hack it all to pieces and limb from limb” with hatchets and knifes and tossed parts of his body at Colter. He expected his own death blow at any second. But, to his surprise, they decided to make a sport of his death, allowing him a few hundred yards head start before allowing dozens of braves to pursue him. He ran as he had never run before.
(Right: An American trapper, his gun slung over one shoulder, by 19th century artist John Filmers.)
As Colter dove on the lone warrior who caught up with him just short of the Madison River, he grabbed the top end of his broken spear and plunged the point into his chest. He had no time to celebrate this small victory, for the rest of the Blackfeet were closing fast. He was on his feet, blood still flowing from his nose, stumbling toward the cottonwood grove in the distance. Shortly, he heard the blood-curdling war whoops of the enraged Blackfeet as they came on the dead body of their comrade. Blood for blood was all that was in their minds now.
Reaching the river bank, Colter saw a raft of drift timber up against a small island. There was little time to form a plan. Plunging into the frigid stream, he dove under the log raft and found an air pocket where he could get his head above the water. He soon heard the furious Blackfeet arrive at the river bank. Though he heard them nearby, and saw some of them walking on the log raft above him, they did not discover his hiding place.
He had survived, but he was now hundreds of miles away from Manuel’s Fort, and naked. Colter was one of the few white men alive who had a chance to get there alive under those conditions. It took him a week or more, but he made it back to the fort, subsisting on berries and prairie turnips along the way. One can only imagine the reaction of trappers as this filthy, naked apparition appeared at the gate. Amazingly, Colter would later return to the Jefferson River alone in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve his beaver traps, and was attacked in his camp at night and barely escaped with his life again.
(Left: Flier for a 1912 silent film of Colter's escape from the Blackfeet.)
Colter continued to trap the area with Lisa until 1810. In the spring of that year he led a party to build a fort in Three Forks area, once again bringing him into conflict with the Blackfoot. They built a fort near the junction of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers, close to where Colter had made his naked escape in 1808. Knowing the area well, Colter led a trapping party up the Jefferson. One again the Blackfeet struck, attacking the camp, where three men in the trapping party camp were killed. Colter was lucky enough to be out of camp at the time. Colter at this point made the decision that he could not continue to beat the odds against the Blackfeet much longer. He was reputed to have said he would, “leave this country day after tomorrow—and damned if I ever come to it again." Returning to Manuel's Fort with two companions, he barely escaped death in yet another attack by the Blackfeet.
In late April he left for St. Louis. A month later his Lewis and Clark comrade, George Drouillard, was killed by the Blackfeet. They dismembered his body as they had Potts. No doubt when Colter heard of it, he pondered whether that was the fate he evaded by leaving. In killing both Potts and Drouillard, the Blackfeet had their revenge on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. Within in a few months the Three Forks fort was abandoned.
Colter spend very little time in Manuel’s Fort (right). He built himself a canoe and, in spite of the danger of going down the Missouri with just two companions, paddled through Sioux and Arikara country, rather than taking the safer option of waiting for one of the keel boats to depart. They arrived in St. Louis in May. After six years in the wilderness, the now much-larger town of St. Louis must have seemed an alien place. Life in a large town was not for him, however. Colter married and had a son, settling on some land near present day Marthasville, about 50 miles up the Missouri. Near his new home, Colter met a famous resident of the area, Daniel Boone, then over 75 years old. One can only imagine the stories those two frontiersman must have exchanged. Before he left St. Louis, he met with Clark and gave him information about the regions he had traveled though for the famous maps Clark was working on.
Though Colter is little remembered by most Americans today, there are reminders of his legacy around the country. There is Colter Bay on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park and Colter Peak in the Absaroka Mountains in Yellowstone National Park. There is a plaque commemorating Colter just east of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, near his birthplace. Near Maysville, Kentucky he is commemorated as one of Lewis and Clark Expedition's "nine young men from Kentucky.” There is even a “Colter’s Run” cross-country race in the Three Forks, Montana, area every September. In 1912, the silent film, “John Colter's Escape” depicted a version of his famous run. Cornel Wilde's movie, “The Naked Prey” (1965) was a retelling of Colter’s escape transferred to Africa. In the movie, “The Mountain Men,’ (1980) the character Bill Tyler, played by Charlton Heston, is captured by the Blackfeet and chased and escapes in a manner recalling Colter's.
(Left: The commemorative plaque for Colter near his hometown in Virginia.)
Colter was ready to settle down, but unfortunately this post-mountain man portion of his life would not last long. He died in late 1813 of jaundice. It was ironic that a man who had survived so many near death experiences with Lewis and Clark and during his years as a mountain man was finally killed by a condition that would have probably been easily cured today.
General Thomas James said of Colter, “Danger had for him a sort of fascination . . . Nature had formed him for hardy endurance of fatigue, privations and perils." Colter was the prototype for the mountain men. The mountain man is a historic early American figure that has inspired many Americans for well over a century now. When we think of these intrepid pioneers, it is often the idea of being the first citizen of the new nation to see many of the astonishing wonders of the Western plains and mountains that fire our imaginations. John Colter epitomized that iconic figure of the early American West.
Searching Robert Campbell's Family Tree for Fortune (Campbell, born in Plumbridge, near Strabane in County Tyrone, trapped with Fitzpatrick in the 1820s and 30s)
"John Colter: His Years in the Rockies" by Burton Harris
“The Mystery of John Colter: The Man Who Discovered Yellowstone” by Ronald M. Anglin
“John Colter: Explorer, Mountain Man, and Trapper” by Charles Griffin Coutant
(Right: A Crow lodge painted in the 1830's by artist George Catlin.)
“John Colter: The Legend of the First Mountain Man” by Don Amiet
Mountain man story John Colter (Storytelling video)
The American Mountain Man Monument – Cody, Wyoming