Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mountain Man, Explorer, and Survivor John Colter [otd 8/17]

On August 17, 1806, discharged Army Private John Colter headed up the Missouri River with his two new partners, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson. Captains Lewis and Clark had released him early from his enlistment because the Corps of Discovery no longer needed him. Clark wrote, “We were disposed to be of Service to any one of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done.”

In particular, Colter was considered one of the best, if not the best hunter in the entire Corps. He also showed a knack for exploring wild country and then quickly relocating the main party. During the Expedition’s long winter at Fort Clatsop, Colter ranged further and further afield in search of elk to feed the men.
Early Three Forks sketch. Montana Historical Society.

Hancock and Dickson had met the Expedition a few days earlier. During the trip downriver to the Mandan Indians villages, located about 40  miles northwest of today's Bismarck, North Dakota, they persuaded Colter to join them. Colter and his two partners ascended the Missouri to Three Forks, Montana.

They trapped there for awhile, but then the partnership dissolved. Colter started east and, in the spring of 1807, encountered a Missouri Fur Company (MFC) flotilla headed upriver. The ex-soldier agreed to join them. They built a trading post, called Fort Raymond, 55-60 miles northeast of present-day Billings, Montana.

Several other members of the Corps had also hired on with the MFC. They perhaps told the company president, Manuel Lisa, about Colter’s pathfinder skills. Lisa sent Colter to locate more prime beaver country. Although winter approached, Colter set off in late 1807, headed south and west.

Historians have recreated his general route from later verbal reports. He apparently skirted the highest mountains at first, perhaps as far south as north-central Wyoming. He then turned west from roughly today’s Dubois, over the Continental Divide, and on to Jackson Lake.
Teton Valley – view of the three Tetons from the west.

Confronted with the Tetons, Colter may well have sought directions from local tribesman, as did the Wilson Price Hunt party some four years later. He crossed Teton Pass into what we know as Idaho’s Teton Basin. Turning north and then east, Colter traversed parts of today’s Yellowstone Park before returning to the Fort in early spring.

Skeptics greeted his descriptions of wild thermal features with the rather derisive sobriquet “Colter’s Hell.” It is now generally accepted that, while Colter may have observed some activity in the Park area, his accounts probably referred to a thermal basin near today’s Cody, Wyoming.

Colter continued to explore and, in 1809, he experienced the event for which he is surely most famous: Colter’s Run. Captured by Blackfeet, with his companion slaughtered on the spot, the Indians stripped him naked for some “fun,” figuring they could easily run him down. Incredibly, he not only escaped, he killed the most persistent of his pursuers.

Another close call the following year convinced Colter his luck was running out, and he left the Rockies. While in St. Louis, he visited with William Clark, who recorded many of Colter’s observations. Clark used the notes to produce a regional map that was considered the best available for at least a half century. Honored today as the first “Mountain Man,” Colter died two or three years later.
References: Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, Simon & Shuster, New York (1996).
Burton Harris, John Colter: His Years in the Rockies, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1993).
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Gary E. Moulton (ed.), The Definitive Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2002).
Merrill J. Mattes, Colter’s Hell & Jackson’s Hole, Yellowstone Library and Museum Association and the Grand Teton Natural History Association in cooperation with the National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior (1976).

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