Private, U.S. Army
First in line
Eventually one of the Corps of Discovery's most famous veterans, John Colter joined the expedition early, became one of its most useful hands, left it early, and yet did not get home until nearly four years after it ended. His permanent role as an icon of Western American history came from his adventures as a fur trapper between the summer of 1806 and the spring of 1810.
He was born in Virginia about 1775 and was still a boy when his family moved to Limestone on the Ohio River—after 1785 officially known as Maysville, Kentucky. The blue-eyed young man, 5'10" tall, approached Captain Lewis about joining the expedition when the barge stopped at Maysville early in October of 1803. His enlistment in the U.S. Army's First Regiment was recorded at Louisville on October 15.
At Camp Dubois that first winter, Colter was among the problem men. He was one of those who got drunk on New Year's Eve, yet Clark trusted him enough two weeks later to go to St. Louis with two others, carrying a letter to Lewis. He, Frazer, and Shields were court martialed on March 29, 1804, in a trial that took most of the day, although the charges and the proceedings went unrecorded. The captains' concern was that some men were refusing to obey Sergeant Ordway, who was in command on the rare days when both captains were away. Colter is possibly the "Co" in Clark's journal, who loaded his gun and threatened "to Shute S. O. [Sergeant Ordway?] & Disobyed Orders"; the other possible "Co" is John Collins, but he was not court martialed on that date.2 On 7 May Colter delivered to Clark Lewis's apologetic letter enclosing Clark's commission as lieutenant.3
Already, Colter had become one of the Corps' primary hunters, whose skill kept him busy helping to feed the party. On 29 August 1804, however, he was assigned to use his tracking skills to take provisions and locate the lost George Shannon. He sought the young private for seven days before giving up.
Colter's ability to keep his cool in unexpected or threatening situations was recorded in the captains' journals for 10 September 1805. Hunting alone near Travelers' Rest, he came upon three Indians who "were allarmed and prepared for battle with their bows and arrows." He immediately "relieved their fears by laying down his gun and advancing towards them "—a typical long-hunter's reaction to Indian threats. Cordially, he invited them to accompany him to his camp. Old Toby, the expedition's Shoshone guide, spoke with them by signs while the captains served them boiled venison and gave them presents.4 The three Nez Perce, who were tracking stolen horses, stayed only briefly.
While the Corps was camped in Clark's "dismal nitch" at Point Ellice—November 10 to 15, 1805—Colter, Alexander Willard and George Shannon paddled a high-prowed Indian canoe—probably the one Lewis had purchased at the Grand Falls of the Columbia—around Point Ellice into Baker Bay. Willard and Shannon stayed on the "butifull Sand beech" awaiting Lewis and his overland contingent, while Colter hiked back with the disappointing news that no European forts or ships were in sight. Throughout the winter Fort Clatsop in 1805-1806, Colter hunted farther and farther away for the increasingly scarce elk, often staying out alone overnight.
Early in the return trip across the Bitterroot Mountains in mid-June of 1806, Colter's horse fell with him while crossing Hungry Creek. Both horse and rider were "driven down the Creek a considerable distance roleing over each other among the rocks." Colter lost his blanket in the accident, but fortunately suffered only minor injuries. Above all, he aquitted himself like the professional hunter he was—he held on to his gun.
Rewards for service
Lewis and Clarks' practice of applying corpsmens' names to selected streams and rivers along their route ultimately signified little or nothing in historical perspective—most of them were replaced by subsequent explorers, settlers, and map-makers. One example is Colters Creek, one of the larger tributaries of the Clearwater (Lewis and Clark's "Chopunnish") River, which was changed to Potlatch River sometime later in the 19th century.5 One of the five original falls of the Missouri was named for him in the 1880s by the founder of the city of Great Falls, Montana, who was a student of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Since 1910, Colter'sFalls have been submerged beneath the reservoir behind Rainbow Dam.
When the Corps split into two detachments at Travelers' Rest on 3 July 1806, Colter went with Clark's party as far as the Three Forks of the Missouri. There he was assigned to Ordway's detail, which was to take the canoes down river to the falls. After the men who made the falls portage reunited with Lewis, Colter and John Collins went ahead in a canoe on 3 August, to hunt until Lewis and his party caught up. What ensued, however, was an unscheduled ten-day separation that proved worrisome for all concerned.
As soon as the captains' respective detachments were reunited, Colter and the others came upon fur trappers Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, the first white men they had seen since April 1805. They said they were headed toward the Yellowstone, and Colter paid particular attention as the trappers explained their plans. Hancock and Dickson also two brought the good news that Clark and his group were not far below on the Missouri. At 1 p.m., Lewis's party reunited with Clark's. All soon reached the Mandan villages and paused to relax and visit.
On the 15th, John Colter asked his commanders for permission to leave Army service immediately, to join Hancock and Dickson. Clark agreed that Colter's "Services Could be dispenced with," and both captains approved his discharge—providing, they warned the others, that no one else would ask for an early release. They all agreed, "wished Colter every Suckcess," and "gave him Several articles which will be usefull to him on his expedittion," principally powder and lead. On the 16th, the captains formally discharged Colter, "as we were disposed to be of Service to any one of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done."
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), 190.
2. Moulton, ed., Journals, 2:194. Brackets are Moulton's.
3. Ibid., 2:212, 213 n. 2.
4. Although Lewis and Clark assumed they were Flatheads, Moulton suggests that the description of their homeland places them in Nez Perce country. Moulton, 5:197n3.5. Potlatch is a Chinook Jargon name for a ceremonial feast among Indians of the Northwest.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.