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John Colter

This biography is from a paper by George H. Yater originally presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Louisville and subsequently published in "Nine Young Men from Kentucky," a May 1992 supplementary publication of We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation

John Colter's exploits after the conclusion of the Expedition exceeded in danger and personal bravery anything he experienced while on the Tour of Discovery. He was born about 1775, another Virginian, born in Augusta County on the frontier. His father was Joseph Colter and his mother the former Ellen Shields, which makes one wonder whether Colter and John Shields were distant relatives.1

About 1779 his family moved to Limestone, a landing point on the Ohio River above Cincinnati and now Maysville, Kentucky. Little is known of his childhood and early adult years, but Maysville, like Louisville, was on the frontier. He would have grown up as a woodsman and hunter. Lewis, in one letter to Clark from Cincinnati, mentions that on his river journey he had taken on two young men who were interested in joining the Expedition. Lewis was giving them a trial.2

One of these young men was John Colter, then about 29. [It is also possible that Colter had journeyed to Louisville and was part of the group of recruits with Clark waiting for Lewis's arrival.] He has been described as five feet, ten inches tall, somewhat shy, with blue eyes and a quick mind. The West and the mountains obviously captivated him. As the Expedition, on its return, was nearing the Mandan villages, it met two Americans coming up the Missouri, Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dixon, who were on a fur-trapping expedition. These two perhaps sensed Colter's fascination for the West and decided that a man who had been all the way to the Pacific was just the third party they needed. Clark noted in his journal on August 15, 1806: "Colter, one of our men expressed a desire to join some trappers ... who offered to become shares with him & furnish traps &c. The offer was a very advantageous one to him." He was allowed to go provided no one else would expect to get such permission and all agreed.3

So now, only six weeks or less from St. Louis, Colter headed back from whence he had come. They trapped along the Yellowstone until the spring of 1807, but it proved unprofitable, the Indians were unfriendly, and disagreements arose among the partners. In the spring of 1807 Colter headed back to St. Louis and this time at the mouth of the Platte met a trapping party headed by Manuel Lisa headed for the Yellowstone. Lisa's enthusiasm had been fired by the stories he heard from the Lewis and Clark people on their arrival in St. Louis.4

And once again Colter turned back with Lisa's party. They arrived at the Yellowstone in October 1807 and built a small fort and trading post at the mouth of the Bighorn River. Lisa wanted to encourage the Crows to come there with furs to trade, so he sent Colter on a 500-mile mission to find the Crows in their winter camps. It was on this epic journey that he discovered the thermal wonders of what is now Yellowstone National Park and passed through Jackson Hole - as far as is known, the first white man to see these national treasures; certainly the first to report them.

Later, in the summer of 1808, he joined the Crow and Flathead Indians on an expedition up the Yellowstone to the Three Forks in Montana. Here the group was attacked by the Blackfeet - grumpy as usual - and Colter was forced to fight against them. Colter was wounded in the leg and returned to Lisa's fort to rest and recover. Then in early fall he and John Potts, another former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who had joined Lisa's venture, went trapping up the Jefferson, or perhaps the Madison, and tried - unsuccessfully - to avoid the Blackfeet. When the two trappers were discovered, Potts was "riddled" after he returned rifle fire. Colter, not so rash, received a different treatment. He was stripped of all his clothing - even his moccasins - and sent running while the Blackfeet pursued him.5

That must have been one of the most amazing foot races of all time - Colter running for his life with a horde of Indians in pursuit. The run was perhaps six miles and blood began gushing from Colter's nose. Finally, when only one pursuer was left, Colter wheeled toward the Indian and startled him so that he stumbled as he attempted to thrust his spear into the trapper. Colter seized the spear, pinned the Indian to the ground with it, snatched the warrior's blanket and fled toward the river, plunged into the icy water and hid under some driftwood. The Blackfeet searched for him until dark, but never found him.

With nothing but the Indian blanket in the chill fall weather, Colter set out for Lisa's fort - 300 miles away - and made it. Unbelievably, the next spring he returned to the same spot where his ordeal had begun. He wanted to retrieve the traps he had dropped in the water when the Blackfeet appeared. Once again the Blackfeet discovered him; he barely escaped in a hail of bullets. Then, in the early spring of 1810, Colter led a group of 32 trappers up the Yellowstone toward Three Forks where they planned to construct a trading post, which - amazingly - they did in the heart of hostile Indian country. The Blackfeet were constantly harassing the group and by late April Colter finally had enough, and returned to St. Louis - the first time in six years he had been in "civilization." By the way, I was amazed to run across a long account of Colter's adventures in a Louisville newspaper of 1885, copied from a New York newspaper, but with no indication of his Kentucky background.6

Of course, he hadn't yet received his pay for the Expedition and Meriwether Lewis, who held the funds, had departed this world in October 1809, probably by his own hand. Colter was forced to obtain the services of an attorney to get his money. Colter remained in Missouri, married a girl named Sally, lived on a farm near the town of Dundee, and became the father of a son named Hiram. A party of fur trappers going up the Missouri in the spring of 1811 stopped at Colter's home to ask questions about the West. One of the group later wrote that Colter seemed to want to go with them, but did not feel he should because of his recent marriage.7

It was just as well. John Colter died not long after in November 1813 of jaundice, not yet 40 years old. There is some confusion about his burial place. One version is that he was buried in the cemetery of the Fee Fee Baptist Church at Bridgeton, Missouri, near Colter's farm. The records of the church contain an entry: "John Colter - fur trader with Manuel Lisa." Supposedly there was once a marker there bearing Colter's name, but it is not there now.8

The other version is that he was buried in a small cemetery atop a hill near Dundee, which came to be called Tunnel Hill when a railroad bored its way through in the 19th century. In 1926 the railroad, to improve its line, excavated a wide cut through the hill. As the steamshovels ate into the hillside, a workman noticed more than dirt being crunched. There were bones and the remains of rude wooden coffins. If John Colter was buried there, he is now distributed along the right of way of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.9

Colter's son Hiram was the father of eight children. In 1926 many of John Colter's descendants still lived in the Dundee area and probably do today.10 They carry the family name of the person whom Bernard DeVoto, that prolific writer on the westward movement, called "the first of the mountain men."



FOOTNOTES

  1. Charles G. Clarke, The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Biographical Roster of the Fifty-one Members (Glendale, Calif., Arthur H. Clark Co., 1970), 46.

  2. Ibid., 54. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 124-125.

  3. Burton Harris, John Colter: His Years in the Rockies, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), 58-59. Barbara Kubik, "John Colter-One of Lewis and Clark's Men," We Proceeded On, 9 (May-June 1983), 11.

  4. Harris, Colter, 121-123. Kubik, "John Colter," 13.

  5. Kubik, "John Colter," 13.

  6. Harris, Colter, 132, 140-147. Louisville Commercial, February 10, 1885, 10.

  7. Jackson, Letters, 567. Harris, Colter, 157. Kubik, "John Colter," 14.

  8. Clarke, Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 47.

  9. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 27, 1926, reprinted in We Proceeded On, 9 (May-June 1983), 15.

  10. Ibid., 15.


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