John Potts

(ca. 1776–1808)1
Private, U.S. Army

Hardy Hunter

John Potts had dismayed William Clark at Camp Dubois during the expedition's first winter, but he became one of the captain's preferred hands in its second and third years. Potts died shortly after the expedition's return, another mountain-man victim of Blackfeet Indians.

On January 4, 1804, at Camp Dubois, Clark wrote: "Worner & Potts fight after Dark without my Knowledge & the Corpl. head of the mess left the hut & Suffered them to bruse themselves much . . . ." While the episode helped lead to Cpl. John Robinson's demotion, Potts never again was a discipline problem.

Potts was a black-haired, black-eyed Hessian miller who had enlisted in the army in 1800 and was serving at South West Point, Tennessee, when sent to join the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the Corps of Discovery, he was one of the hunters, often sent out in small groups.

When Clark went forward searching for Shoshones north of the Three Forks of the Missouri in July 1805, he took Potts, York, and Joseph Field along. Hiking overland in Montana, the moccasin-clad men suffered from stony ground rife with prickly pear cactus. On July 20, their third day out, Clark wrote that ". . . the feet of the men with me So Stuck with Prickley pear & cut with the Stones that they were Scerseley able to march at a Slow gate this after noon[.]"2 Even so, Sacagawea had impressed upon the men that her Shoshone people would be leery of Blackfeet war parties. On the 21st, Clark and his men advanced three miles, then retreated four, before shooting guns to obtain their food.

On the return trip from the Pacific, when Clark took men to explore Oregon's Williamette River beginning April 2, he included Potts in the group. Also, he included Potts in his command when the Corps split to cross Montana in July that year.

At Camp Chopunnish on May 30, 1806, Potts nearly drowned when the dugout canoe he was in was swamped in the Clearwater River. Lewis reported on the lost canoe, blankets, a coat, and some trade goods, and noted that "Potts who was with them is an indifferent swimer, it was with much difficulty he made the land."

But Potts's worst accident was yet to come. As the Corps retraced the Lolo Trail through the Bitterroots on June 18, Lewis wrote:

We had not proceeded very far this morning before Potts cut his leg very badly with one of the large knives; he cut one of the large veigns on the inner side of the leg; I found much difficulty in stoping the blood which I could not effect untill I applyed a tight bandage with a little cushon of wood and tow [rope] on the veign below the wound.

Apparently, the expensive tourniquet Lewis had purchased in Philadelphia3 was either cached east of the mountains, or was among the medical supplies lost in one of the canoe accidents. Four days later, Potts's cut was infected and "very painfull," so Lewis applied a useless poultice of cous roots. Five days after that, the captains added wild ginger root to a cous poultice, an ingredient that has some antibacterial properties, according to physician David Peck.4 Lewis said the new mixture gave Potts "great relief." And yet, on the day the two captains split their command—fifteen days after Potts's accident—on July 3, 1806, the wound was still tender, especially when the man's inner leg rubbed against a horse's back all day. In camp along the Bitterroot River, Clark wrote: "one man Jo: Potts very unwell this evening owing to rideing a hard trotting horse; I give him a pill of Opiom which Soon releve him."

The Doomed Trapper

Expedition veteran John Potts never exercised his land warrant awarded for that service,5 but in 1807 went to work for Manuel Lisa. When Lisa led an expedition up the Missouri to build a fur post that year, Potts was in it, along with John Colter, George Drouillard, Jean-Baptiste Lepage, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor. Lisa decided to build the post, which he named Fort Raymond, at the mouth of the Bighorn River on the Yellowstone. After its completion in November, most of the forty-some men—including Potts—trapped around the fort.

Lisa sent one employee, Edward Rose, to trade with Crow Indians. Three others, all Corps of Discovery veterans, traveled hundreds of miles to trade and tell Indians about the new fort: Colter, Drouillard, and Weiser. Rose spent the winter of living with Crow people and giving away his trade goods, then returned to Fort Raymond with no furs.

Saving Lisa's Life

Various accounts refer to Lisa's volatile temper. Rose seems also to have been a violent man, although recklessly brave. When Lisa was preparing to take the winter's furs back to St. Louis, in July 1808, the two began fighting—about what is not recorded, but they were in the fort's counting room and Rose had squandered a winter's trade goods. But Rose outweighed the shorter Lisa, and John Potts was the one who ran in to stop what he likely saw as an unfair fight.

The enraged Rose turned his physical fury on Potts, which apparently saved Lisa's life. Giving Potts no aid, Lisa ran out to his waiting keelboat, boarded it, and began to pull away from shore. Rose then ran outside and attempted to load the fort's swivel gun to fire on the boat—everyone's means of getting home. Ten to fifteen other employees tackled him. Within a few days, Rose left to live with and marry into the Crow tribe.6

Choosing Death

John Potts was thus recuperating from his beating when John Colter was recovering from his leg wound recently received in a Blackfeet attack. The two had been messmates in Sgt. Ordway's squad during the expedition, and now they decided to partner as trappers. Potts rented two horses from the company, and in the late summer of 1808 he and Colter went to the Missouri's headwaters. The prolific beaver population that had hampered Clark's eastward progress down the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers in 1806—with Potts in his party—now was to bring Potts's and Colter's fortunes.7

They did take precautions to keep safe from the Blackfeet, working their traps morning and evening, and lying low during the days. But one day, when they were in a canoe checking their Jefferson River traps, Colter heard "a trampling of animals"8 that he insisted could be a Blackfeet war party. Potts was just as sure that it was a bison herd, so Colter gave in and they continued to work.

Then, as Colter described it to other mountain men, "several hundred"9 Blackfeet warriors rose up on both sides of the river, and gestured for Potts and Colter to land. At the bank, a warrior took Potts's rifle but Colter grabbed it and returned it to his friend. Re-armed, Potts made the fatal decision to push the canoe away. At once he was struck with an arrow. He yelled for Colter to escape, that he himself could not, but that he would shoot at least another warrior.

Firing his weapon elicited a hail of arrows that killed Potts. The Indians dragged his body onto the bank and hacked it into pieces—before giving Colter the surprising chance to run for his own life.10 Colter apparently believed that Potts chose to die rather than be captured alive and tortured—one of the mountain man's greatest fears.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 197.
  • 2. Moulton, ed., Journals, 4:410.
  • 3. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854; 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:80.
  • 4. David J. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt: Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2002), 257.
  • 5. Jackson, 2:381n22.
  • 6. Morris, 44-45.
  • 7. Morris, 46.
  • 8. John Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, 2nd ed. (London, 1819; repr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 44n18.
  • 9. Morris, 46.
  • 10. See also on this site Colter the Mountain Man, Colter's Run.