Colter the Mountain Man

Page 2 of 2

Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dickson were camping on the Missouri River above the Mandan villages when William Clark's party stopped and visited them on August 11, 1806. Four days later, after his and Lewis's party had been reunited, the two trappers returned to the Mandan villages, where they invited John Colter to join them. The three men turned back up the Missouri on August 17. They made it to the Yellowstone country, but the three-way partnership lasted only six weeks before Hancock and Colter together parted from Dickson. In the spring of 1807 they too split up, and Colter set out down the Missouri toward St. Louis, alone.

As Colter paddled up to the mouth of the Platte River, a trading party aboard a keelboat fired a gun to greet him. Landing, he found fur trader Manuel Lisa's expedition headed for the Yellowstone River. He was surprised to see that Lisa's company included his old comrades George Drouillard, Jean-Baptiste Lepage, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor. Once again, Colter turned his back on the home he had left in 1803, now in the role of a free trapper for Lisa. Soon joined by Colter's former partner, Forrest Hancock, Lisa's men built Fort Raymond on the Yellowstone a short distance above the mouth of the Bighorn River.

Detail from Clark's map, 1814

To see labels, point to the image.

Colter's route in 1807

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

On this 1814 map, William Clark added the route he had learned John Colter took during the winter of 1807-08. Colter was circulating among the Crow people to come to trade on the Yellowstone River (see below). Colter described his 1807-08 Crow country trip to Clark sometime after returning to St. Louis in 1810.

Colter's Circuit Through Crow Country

Lisa sent four men out in different directions during the winter of 1807-1808 to acquaint area Indians with his new post—the young mountain man Edward Rose (c. 1786-c.1823), and Lewis and Clark Expedition veterans Weiser, Drouillard, and John Colter. Colter followed the Bighorn River upstream into Wyoming, where he saw the mineral hot springs at today's Thermopolis—which Drouillard also passed and was the first to describe them to Lisa, but which the men at the fort for some reason dubbed "Colter's Hell."

Colter turned up the Shoshone River's south fork and crossed the Continental Divide into Jackson Hole. From there he went west into Idaho before circling back to Yellowstone Lake and then along the Absaroka Mountains, possibly going through Colter's Hell again before following the Bighorn River downstream to Fort Raymond. He mainly traveled on snowshoes, carrying at least a thirty-pound pack, plus his knife, tomahawk, powder horn and heavy rifle.

After completing that circuit, Colter went out again in the spring of 1808, heading west up the Yellowstone toward the Three Forks of the Missouri. (Clark and his detachment had explored that stretch of the Yellowstone in July 1806 while Lewis's detachment—which included Colter—was proceeding back down the Missouri.) He met about 800 Crows and some visiting Flatheads, and had begun leading them back to Fort Raymond when they all were attacked by about 1500 Blackfeet. An acquaintance of Colter's, General Thomas James, wrote that Colter was wounded in one leg but kept firing while sheltered in a brush thicket. The Crows and Flatheads finally repulsed the Blackfeet, and Colter returned to Fort Raymond to recover. He was there in July as Lisa packed the season's furs to deliver to St. Louis, when the trader was attacked by Edward Rose. John Potts intervened, and was injured in the fray.1

Colter's Run

When Potts recovered from the beating Rose gave him, and Colter from his battle wound, the two men partnered to go to the Three Forks area and trap beaver. Cautious but not fearful about the Blackfeet, they hid themselves and their gear during daylight hours, setting their traps after dark each day and pulling them out the following morning—a convenient plan, since beaver are nocturnal animals anyway. During one of those early morning visits to their traps the inevitable occurred—a confrontation with a large band of Blackfeet warriors.

In September 1809, he was at the Mandan villages on the Missouri at Knife River when George Drouillard arrived with Pierre Chouteau's party, which had successfully escorted Chief Sheheke and his family back to their home after their visit with President Jefferson. While the Mandans celebrated Sheheke's safe return, Colter told Drouillard of his experience with the Blackfeet warriors, including Potts's death and his own escape. Making notes was Dr. William H. Thomas, who was soon to leave for St. Louis where he submitted the journal of his trip to the Missouri Gazette, where it was published in two installments. The second, which appeared on 13 July 1810, included Dr. Thomas's recollection of Colter's account. It was brief (only 264 words), incomplete, and somewhat misleading—Thomas understood, for instance, that Colter walked all the way from the scene of the confrontation near the Three Forks to the vicinity of the Hidatsa villages in only nine days. Nevertheless, it helped to place the event in the mainstream of American legend, where it remains to this day one of the most oft-repeated tales in Western folklore.1

Two years after his race with the Blackfeet Colter retold the story to John Bradbury, a prominent British naturalist, who included it as a footnote to the travel memoir that he published in London in 1817. It was more complete than Thomas's version—nearly five times as long.2

This man came to St. Louis in May, 1810, in a small canoe, from the head waters of the Missouri, a distance of three thousand miles, which he traversed in thirty days. I saw him on his arrival, and received from him an account of his adventures after he had separated from Lewis and Clarke's party: one of these, from its singularity, I shall relate.

On the arrival of the party on the head waters of the Missouri, Colter, observing an appearance of abundance of beaver being there, he got permission to remain and hunt for some time, which he did in company with a man of the name of Dixon. . . . Soon after he separated from Dixon, and trapped in company with a hunter named Potts; and aware of the hostility of the Blackfeet Indians, one of whom had been killed by Lewis, they set their traps at night, and took them up early in the morning, remaining concealed during the day.

They were examining their traps early one morning, in a creek about six miles from that branch of the Missouri called Jefferson's Fork, and were ascending in a canoe, when they suddenly heard a great noise, resembling the trampling of animals; but they could not ascertain the fact, as the high perpendicular banks on each side of the river impeded their view. Colter immediately pronounced it to be occasioned by Indians, and advised an instant retreat; but was accused of cowardice by Potts, who insisted that the noise was caused by buffaloes, and they proceeded on. In a few minutes afterwards their doubts were removed, by a party of Indians making their appearance on both sides of the creek, to the amount of five or six hundred, who beckoned them to come ashore. As retreat was now impossible, Colter turned the head of the canoe to the shore; and at the moment of its touching, an Indian seized the rifle belonging to Potts; but Colter, who is a remarkably strong man, immediately retook it, and handed it to Potts, who remained in the canoe, and on receiving it pushed off into the river. He had scarcely quitted the shore when an arrow was shot at him, and he cried out, "Colter, I am wounded." Colter remonstrated with him on the folly of attempting to escape, and urged him to come ashore. Instead of complying, he instantly levelled his, rifle at an Indian, and shot him dead on the spot. This conduct, situated as he was, may appear to have been an act of madness; but it was doubtless the effect of sudden, but sound reasoning; for if taken alive, he must have expected to be tortured to death, according to their custom. He was instantly pierced with arrows so numerous, that, to use the language of Colter, "he was made a riddle of."

They now seized Colter, stripped him entirely naked, and began to consult on the manner in which he should be put to death. They were first inclined to set him up as a mark to shoot at; but the chief interfered, and seizing him by the shoulder, asked him if he could run fast? Colter, who had been some time amongst the Kee-kat-sa, or Crow Indians, had in a considerable degree acquired the Blackfoot language, and was also well acquainted with Indian customs. He knew that he had now to run for his life, with the dreadful odds of five or six hundred against him, and those armed Indians; therefore cunningly replied that he was a very bad runner, although he was considered by the hunters as remarkably swift.

The chief now commanded the party to remain stationary, and led Colter out on the prairie three or four hundred yards, and released him, bidding him to save himself if he could. At that instant the horrid war whoop sounded in the ears of poor Colter, who, urged with the hope of preserving life, ran with a speed at which he was himself surprised. He proceeded towards the Jefferson Fork, having to traverse a plain six miles in breadth, abounding with the prickly pear, on which he was every instant treading with his naked feet. He ran nearly half way across the plain before he ventured to look over his shoulder, when he perceived that the Indians were very much scattered, and that he had gained ground to a considerable distance from the main body; but one Indian, who carried a spear, was much before all the rest, and not more than a hundred yards from him. A faint gleam of hope now cheered the heart of Colter: he derived confidence from the belief that escape was within the bounds of possibility; but that confidence was nearly being fatal to him, for he exerted himself to such a degree, that the blood gushed from his nostrils, and soon almost covered the fore part of his body.

He had now arrived within a mile of the river, when he distinctly heard the appalling sound of footsteps behind him, and every instant expected to feel the spear of his pursuer. Again he turned his head, and saw the savage not twenty yards from him. Determined if possible to avoid the expected blow, he suddenly stopped, turned round, and spread out his arms. The Indian, surprised by the suddenness of the action, and perhaps at the bloody appearance of Colter, also attempted to stop; but exhausted with running, he fell whilst endeavouring to throw his spear, which stuck in the ground, and broke in his hand. Colter instantly snatched up the pointed part, with which he pinned him to the earth, and then continued his flight.

The foremost of the Indians, on arriving at the place, stopped till others came up to join them, when they set up a hideous yell. Every moment of this time was improved by Colter, who, although fainting and exhausted, succeeded in gaining the skirting of the cotton wood trees, on the borders of the fork, through which he ran, and plunged into the river. Fortunately for him, a little below this place there was an island, against the upper point of which a raft of drift timber had lodged. He dived under the raft, and after several efforts, got his head above water amongst the trunks of trees, covered over with smaller wood to the depth of several feet. Scarcely had he secured himself, when the Indians arrived on the river, screeching and yelling, as Colter expressed it, "like so many devils." They were frequently on the raft during the day, and were seen through the chinks by Colter, who was congratulating himself on his escape, until the idea arose that they might set the raft on fire. In horrible suspense he remained until night, when hearing no more of the Indians, he dived from under the raft, and swam silently down the river to a considerable distance, when he landed, and travelled all night.

Although happy in having escaped from the Indians, his situation was still dreadful: he was completely naked, under a burning sun; the soles of his feet were entirely filled with the thorns of the prickly pear; he was hungry, and had no means of killing game, although he saw abundance around him, and was at least seven days journey3 from Lisa's Fort, on the Bighorn branch of the Roche Jaune River. These were circumstances under which almost any man but an American hunter would have despaired. He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on a root much esteemed by the Indians of the Missouri, now known by naturalists as psoralea esculenta [breadroot; Lewis and Clark's "Ground potato," an Indian substitute for bread].

A few inconsistencies eventually showed up between Bradbury's transcript of the story and other versions. According to Thomas James, to whom Colter retold his story in 1810, his first hiding place was not a raft of drift logs but a beaver den. But details such as these are of small importance in a story that quickly became more legend than history. And Bradbury—or perhaps Colter himself—omitted the fugitive's tortuous trail-breaking trek across the Gallatin Mountains east of the Gallatin River. In his more embellished version of Colter's account—almost six times as long as Dr. Thomas's—James concluded with a glimpse of the apparition that staggered into Fort Raymond: "His beard was long, his face and whole body were thin and emaciated by hunger, and his limbs and feet swollen and sore. The company at the Fort did not recognize him in this dismal plight until he had made himself known." 4

Third try

At the Hidatsa village in October of 1809 Colter met another party of trappers, and for the third time in four years was invited to go back up the Yellowstone. Again he accepted, joining Manuel Lisa's partner Pierre Menard, who was planning to build a fort at the Three Forks. (See Drouillard—Mountain Man to His Death for details.)

After wintering at Fort Raymond they proceeded on to the Three Forks and built the fort in April. When Blackfeet Indians killed two trappers and captured three others that month, Colter was away at his own traps. Returning to find his dead companions, he rushed to the fort and learned what had happened. Colter had had enough. "If God will only forgive me this time and let me off," he swore, "I will leave the country day after tomorrow, and be damned if I ever come into it again." In six weeks, Colter was back in St. Louis.

There he would quickly have learned of Lewis's death the previous year, and he would read in the August 1810 issue of the Missouri Gazette of Drouillard's death at the Three Forks. He is known to have visited Clark and given him information about his own Wyoming travels that Clark incorporated into the map that was published with Biddle's edition of the captains' journals. Sometime within a year of his return to St. Louis, Colter married a woman now known only as Sarah, or Sally, who bore him a son they named Hiram. The Colters settled at La Charette, some 30 miles up the Missouri from St. Charles, where the elderly Daniel Boone was one of their neighbors. That was a fitting coincidence, inasmuch as, among the hunters in the Corps of Discovery, Colter was one of the few who deserved to be remembered as a genuine "Boone." Indeed, Thomas James depicted him in that very light. "He . . . wore an open, ingenious, and pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone stamp," wrote James. "Nature had formed him, like Boone, for hardy endurance of fatigue, privations and perils." Similarly, Colter became a legend in his own time, a re-incarnation of the Kentucky long hunter, and as such, one of the first of a new breed, the iconic Western "mountain man."5

John Colter's life story resembles Daniel Boone's in another way also—he was doomed to be short-changed in worldly rewards. While he was on the expedition, and during his ensuing three years as a trapper, he had little or no need for money. However, upon his return to St. Louis in May of 1810 he found he was unable to collect the $559 due him for his service with the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis had died the previous October, so Colter was obliged to sue Lewis's estate. After a year of court proceedings he finally received, on 28 May 1811, a Judgment of $377.60—a little more than two-thirds of what was due him.6

Early in the spring of 1812, Daniel Boone's son Nathan mustered a mobile frontier police force known as the Mounted Rangers—"perhaps as fine a body of hardy woodsmen as ever took the field," the Missouri Gazette trumpeted. On the third of March John Colter eagerly signed on for service. Tragically, he died after a short unspecified illness on the seventh of May.7 He was only 38.

1. Dr. Thomas was the surgeon with the expedition that escorted Chief Sheheke and his family back to their Mandan village home in 1809. Thomas's report of his journey to the Mandan villages was published in the Missouri Gazette in two installments. The first appeared on 30 November 1809, and was reprinted by the Pittsburgh Gazette on 6 July 1810. The second—which contained Colter's story—on July 13, 1810. Donald Jackson, "Journey to the Mandans, 1809; The Lost Narrative of Dr. Thomas," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, vol. 20 (April 1964), 179-92. Jackson, Letters, 2:729-30.

2. John Bradbury (ca. 1765-1823), Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1911 (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1817), 17-21, footnote. Bradbury's book is available online at (accessed April 2, 2008). The 1819 edition has been reprinted in a Bison Books Edition by the University of Nebraska Press (1986).

3. The measurement varied. Was it really seven days, or was it nine, or eleven? The distance must have been more than 225 miles. If he covered it in seven days, he had to average more than 30 miles per day. Whichever it was, the journey itself, not counting the initial escape, was the stuff of which legends are made.

4. Edward Rose once claimed to have been given the chance to run for his life from a band of Blackfeet warriors, and declared he had succeeded by hiding beneath a raft of river driftwood. It may be that he was telling the truth, but considering Rose's reputation it is more likely that he was merely hoping to steal some of John Colter's honestly won fame. Willis Blenkinsop, "Edward Rose," in Le Roy Hafen, The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, 10 vols. (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark Co., 1965-72), 8:33545.

5. Thomas James, Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, (1846; new ed. by Milo Milton Quaife, New York: Citadel Press, 1966), 62. On-line edition (1846), (accessed April 1, 2008), in the Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Source Documents.

6. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, With Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:567. Jackson concluded from other evidence that Lewis probably had pocketed the grant Colter received from the government for his role in the expedition, expecting to pay him when he returned.

7. It was said by Thomas James, in Three Years (Chapter 2), that Colter died of jaundice, which at that time was thought to be a disease. It was not yet known that jaundice was merely a symptom of various afflictions such as hepatitis, liver disease, or certain tumors. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became ofthe Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 126.

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