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Private John Colter

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The Personnel of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:
Article 9 -- Private John Colter

Sunday, 17th August 1806. From the journal of Sgt. John Ordway:

"John Colter . . . asks leave of our officers to go back with Mr Dixon a trapping . . . so our officers Settled with him and fitted him out with powder lead and a great number of articles which compleated him for a trapping voyage of two years which they are determined to Stay untill they make a fortune, &C. &C. . . Colter Mr Dixon and Handcock parted with us in their small canoe . . .”

John Colter casts a long shadow across the West of the imagination. His adventures during the years between his parting with the Corps of Discovery in 1806 and his return to St. Louis in 1810 are the material of legend. His foot race for life from a band of Blackfeet warriors is perhaps the best known of all the tales of the Rocky Mountains. Armchair explorers contemplate his solitary treks with wonder and envy.

Colter and George Shannon were possibly the first two recruits to the Corps. Shannon was still in his teens, Colter already a seasoned woodsman. His exact birth date is unknown, but he was probably born near Staunton, Virginia, in the early 1770s. When he was still a boy, his family moved to Kentucky. In the late summer of 1803 Shannon and Colter floated down the Ohio River with Meriwether Lewis to a rendezvous with William Clark and the other seven Kentuckians.

Colter was one of the high-spirited fellows who didn’t take to army discipline very well at first. Twice during the 1803-04 winter at Camp Dubois Colter was chastised for inappropriate whiskey consumption. In early March, 1804, he was court-martialed for threatening to shoot Sgt. John Ordway, but earned the officers’ forgiveness with a sincere promise to behave better in the future.

If his reputation was based solely upon his service with the Corps, Colter might be as obscure as the rest of his colleagues. We can safely assume that he hunted and scouted with greater than average ability. When Shannon got lost in 1804, Colter was sent to find him. In September 1804, Colter killed the party’s first mule deer. He is recorded as a canoe builder and a grizzly sprinter at the Great Falls portage. Both skills would be later be called upon.

So, too, would his ability to think clearly in a sudden crisis. In September 1805 Colter was hunting near present Lolo Creek, Montana, when he suddenly came upon three mounted Indian warriors. He put his rifle down and approached them in a friendly manner. They responded in kind and followed Colter back to the Expedition’s camp for a pleasant visit.

A year later Colter was headed up the Yellowstone River with his new partners, Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hancock. Colter had been floating down the Missouri with Lewis’s party when they encountered the two Illinois trappers in August 1806. Hancock and Dixon were the first non-Indians the Corps had seen since their departure from the Mandan villages in the spring of 1805. The two men had begun their ascent of the Missouri in 1804, hunting and trapping as they went.

None of the three partners left their own account of the formation of the first American Rocky Mountain fur trade partnership. In the words of William Clark,

"Colter . . . expressed a desire to join [Dixon and Hancock], who offered to become [partners] with [him] and furnish traps &C. . . his services could be dispensed with from [here] down and as we were disposed to be of service to anyone of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done, we agreed to allow him the privilage provided no [other] one of the party would ask or expect a similar permission to which they all agreed . . .”

Colter said his farewells to his comrades and with his new partners paddled upstream. He was going back to the mountains.

There is little reliable evidence of John Colter’s activities during the autumn, winter, and spring of 1806-07. He probably went up the Yellowstone River to trap beaver with Dixon and Hancock. Sometime during the winter the partnership was dissolved for reasons unknown. Colter was next seen canoeing solo down the Missouri River near the mouth of the Platte River in the spring of 1807, alive but far from wealthy. There he was met by the Spanish fur trader Manuel Lisa’s party coming up the Missouri. With Lisa were three former members of the Corps of Discovery: John Potts, Peter Weiser, and George Drouillard. Colter’s knowledge of the Yellowstone River country was worth a mint to Lisa, so once again Colter turned his back on civilization and lit out for the Territory.

Lisa and his party ascended the Missouri and then the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the Bighorn River, where they built a trading post Lisa modestly named Manuel’s Fort. In October, Lisa sent John Colter out to persuade the Crow Indians to do come to the fort. Thus began a trek that has puzzled and awed scholars and amateur historians for almost two hundred years. The only primary evidence for Colter’s route is its depiction on William Clark’s “master map” of the West published in 1814. Clark’s source was Colter himself. Among the identifiable landmarks generally agreed upon by historians are Yellowstone Lake and Jackson Hole.

Although Clark’s map doesn’t indicate a course of direction for Colter’s trek, it’s usually interpreted as clockwise. Using modern names, then, Colter apparently ascended the Bighorn River and Wind River, crossed the Wind River Range, went north through Jackson Hole with a possible side-trip to Idaho’s Teton Basin, continued north along the west side of Yellowstone Lake, forded the Yellowstone River, went east across the Snowy Range and back to Manuel’s Fort. There are other theories, but all share one fact: this was done during the winter of 1807-8 through country where winter reigns as King.

Two pieces of misinformation arose from this stunning feat. First, the common misrepresentation of Yellowstone Park as Colter’s Hell. Not so. Colter’s Hell was the sulphurous hot spring and geyser area he discovered along the “Stinking Water”–now Shoshone-River near present-day Cody, Wyoming. Second, Colter carved his name and a crude human face on a rock that was discovered near Tetonia, Idaho, in 1931, thus proving his presence in Teton Basin. Several of these rocks have turned up, evidence of a clever hoax on someone’s part, but not Colter’s. This does not mean that Colter wasn’t there. Clark’s map certainly can be interpreted so.

Colter returned to Manuel’s Fort in the spring of 1808. He seems to have had some success as an emissary to the Crows for Lisa sent him on a similar mission that summer to the Blackfoot nation. On his way Colter fell in with a party of Salish and Crow warriors on the Gallatin River. He traveled with them toward the Forks of the Missouri, a decision that led to dire consequences when they were attacked by a large party of Blackfeet. During the battle Colter was wounded in one leg. Unable to stand, he crawled into a small thicket of trees, where he continued to load and fire his rifle from a sitting position. Although they were outnumbered by the Blackfeet, the Salish and Crow held their ground and forced their enemies to withdraw. For the first time, John Colter had participated in a serious Indian fight. We may assume that, despite his wound, he used his rifle with great effect on the Blackfeet.

Many historians have asserted that the deadly enmity of the Blackfoot toward Americans stemmed from Meriwether Lewis’s fatal encounter with eight members of that tribe in July, 1806. Two Blackfeet were killed in their attempt to steal the guns and horses of Lewis and his small party. Other scholars, citing statements made by Canadian fur traders, say that the Blackfeet looked upon Lewis’s actions as justifiable self-defense. They would have reacted the same way if someone had tried to steal their horses or weapons. But Colter’s willing, voluntary involvement in a battle on the side of their enemies was another matter entirely. The friend of my enemy is my enemy. The Blackfeet would remember John Colter.

Later that summer, Colter and John Potts were trapping a tributary of the Jefferson River, a river they had ascended in 1805 as members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As they checked their traps one morning from a dugout canoe, Blackfeet warriors suddenly appeared on both banks. Escape was out of the question. The Indians beckoned them to come ashore. When they did, a warrior quickly grabbed Potts’ rifle. Colter wrested it from the Indian and handed it back to Potts, who pushed the boat back into the river. A warrior then shot an arrow at Potts, wounding him. Colter urged Potts to return to shore, but the wounded man raised his rifle and shot an Indian dead. Instantly Potts was pierced with so many arrows and bullets that “he was made a riddle of.” Potts was no fool. He knew the Blackfeet were going to mutilate his body. He preferred to be dead when it happened. As for Colter, chances are you already know “the rest of the story.” If not, here’s the short version:

The Blackfeet decided to have some sport. Colter was stripped and told to run for his life. Given a head start of several hundred yards, he raced barefoot toward the Jefferson river, some six miles away. Eventually, one warrior outpaced all the others and gradually drew near to his prey. When he had come to within a few yards of Colter, Colter, blood pumping from his nostrils, suddenly stopped, turned and spread his arms wide as if he intended to give his pursuer a bear hug. The warrior was so startled that he tripped and broke the spear he was carrying. Colter picked the business end of the spear up, killed the Indian, and resumed his flight. He reached the river utterly exhausted, his bare feet lacerated and punctured with cactus spines. Throwing himself into the water, he floated down to a large driftwood pile at the head of an island. He dove under the pile and was just barely able to get his head above water among the logs and sticks.

The main body of the Indians reached the river screeching “like so many devils” at the disappearance of Colter and the death of their comrade. They scoured the area, dashing back and forth several times across Colter’s sanctuary, until night fell. Colter then quietly swam downstream in the dark to a point where he felt it safe to leave the river. Naked and barefoot, he began the three hundred mile walk to Manuel’s Fort on the Yellowstone River. He somehow covered the distance in seven days, sustaining himself on roots and tree bark When he arrived, his condition was such that the men at the fort didn’t recognize him.

How credible was Colter’s account? At least two men who published the details heard the story from Colter himself. The summary above is derived from John Bradbury’s Travels in the Interior of America, published in 1819. An English naturalist, Bradbury met Colter in St. Louis in 1810. Thomas James, who was a member of a party of trappers Colter led back to the Three Forks area after his narrow escape, published his own version several decades later. It differs slightly in detail. A third version appeared in Henry Brackenridge’s Views of Louisiana Together with a Voyage up the Missouri River in 1811. He may have interviewed Colter himself; he certainly heard the story second-hand.

[In the spring of 1811 Brackenridge, an American journalist, was a passenger headed up the Missouri on one of Manuel Lisa’s boats. Lisa was in a hurry and the party passed by Colter’s home without stopping for a visit. It’s a pity. Also on board were a French guide/interpreter and his Shoshoni wife, who had been guests of William Clark in St. Louis since late in the year1809. The woman Clark had with affectionate called Janey was headed up the river with her husband. Toussaint Charbonneau had, in Brackenridge’s words, “become weary of a civilized life.”]

Amazingly, John Colter’s two confrontations with the Blackfeet in 1808 had not yet soured his taste for the wilderness life. But the Blackfeet weren’t through with Colter yet. When they surprised Colter and Potts, Colter had the presence of mind to slip his beaver traps overboard. Had they been lucky and tough enough to survive it, most men would have let well enough alone after such an adventure. But as soon as winter set in, Colter set off by himself from Manuel Lisa’s fort back to the Three Forks area to recover his traps. As the story was told by Thomas James, who later who visited the area with him, Colter counted on the Blackfeet being “all quiet in winter quarters.” Colter arrived at the Gallatin River and set up camp for the night. As he was cooking some buffalo meat for supper, he heard the coking of several guns in the darkness around his camp. He “instantly leaped over the fire. Several shots followed and bullets whistled around him.” Once again, Colter fled east toward Manuel’s Fort. Although he was forced to leave his camp outfit behind, at least this time he was properly attired. But Colter’s luck with the Blackfeet had run out and he knew it.

When spring came in 1809, he was one of the party detailed to float the season’s catch of furs down the river. He is known to have descended the Missouri at least as far as the Hidatsa villages. He returned to Lisa’s fort and probably spent the winter of 1809-10 within its walls. In the early spring of 1810, Lisa sent a large party overland from Manuel’s Fort to the Three Forks with the bold intent of building a fort in the heart of Blackfoot country. John Colter accompanied the expedition as a guide. When they reached Three Forks in early April, work was begun on the fort at the confluence of the Madison and Jefferson rivers.

Colter led a party up the Jefferson River to trap beaver. It didn’t take long for the Indians to find them. On April 12 a band of Gros Ventres killed several men and stole some traps and horses. According to James, this was the last straw for Colter. He returned the fort, threw his hat on the ground, and vowed, “If God will only forgive me this time and let me off [,] I will leave the country day after tomorrow–and be d–d if ever I come again to it.” He left the mountains with style, pulling off one final incredible journey. With two companions, Colter left Three Forks on the morning of April 22. This is reliably documented. Thirty days later he arrived in St. Louis. The English Naturalist John Bradbury met him there. That’s an average of roughly ninety to a hundred miles a day on the Missouri River.

After arriving in St. Louis, Colter described his travels to William Clark, took up a farm sixty miles up the Missouri near Daniel Boone’s farm, and married a woman named, depending on the source, Lucy, Sally, or Sarah. Colter did a little trapping with Boone, hunted, and farmed. In 1811 Wilson Hunt’s Astorians stopped by to pay Colter a visit on their way west to establish a fur trade empire. Colter’s advice: stay away from the Blackfeet.

In the autumn of 1813, John Colter’s skin turned as yellow as the leaves of the cottonwood. He died of jaundice in November. During the writing of these articles I had the opportunity to visit the Three Forks area with my BLM partner, Terry Whittier. There is surprisingly little development at the confluence of the Madison and Jefferson: a few interpretive signs, a dirt trail.

It is a good, quiet place to ponder the history lived here by the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This is sacred ground to those who make their living interpreting their stories. As I stood gazing across the Madison at the site of Lisa’s short-lived fort of 1810, I could picture Colter calling it quits, declaring “enough’s enough!” But I find it impossible to grasp fully the scope of his achievements in the years 1806-1810.


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