John Colter (Circa 1775 - 1810): Discoverer and Explorer.


The epic journey of discovery known as "The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 - 1806" was organized in the autumn of 1803. On October 15, John Colter, believed born in Virginia around 1775, enlisted at Maysville, Kentucky as a private with the stipulated pay of $5 a month.

He was the fourth man selected by William Clark as he apparently answered the requirement for "good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree."

Very little is documented regarding Colter from the spring of 1804 through the winter of 1804-1805 which covers the time of the training encampment on Wood River to the Mandan village in the Dakotas.

After the expedition left the Mandan Villages John Colter continued to share all the hardships and triumphs of the expedition, as well as routine adventure in hunting, starving, Indian diplomacy, and getting chased by a great white bear on one of the three islands above the Great Falls of the Missouri.

In August 1806 the returning party reached the Mandan villages. Here Colter was granted permission by the explorers to take his leave and join two trappers from Illinois, Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dickson (Dixon), who expressed their interest in trapping the Yellowstone River. From August 17, 1806 to the spring of 1807 the whereabouts of John Colter was speculative. The extent of the wanderings of these three men is not known. It is believed that Colter separated from Dickson and Hancock and possibly wintered with the indians in Sunlight Basin or Colter's Hell near what is today Cody, Wyoming.

In the spring of 1807 Colter alone paddled a canoe down the Missouri to the mouth of the Platte where he found keelboats of the Missouri Fur Company of St. Louis, left by Manuel Lisa. He was promptly recruited and went with this expedition up the Missouri and the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, where Lisa built a log fort known as Fort Raymond or Manuel's Fort.

In November of 1807 Manuel Lisa sent John Colter to find the crow indians. He apparently wintered with the crow between November of 1807 and the spring of 1808. Thus, it was from this point that Colter made his famous journey of discovery into, what is now, Yellowstone Park. Colter left no written record of his own. The only thing resembling written evidence is the following by Henry Brackenridge, who heard it from Manuel Lisa:

He [Lisa] continued his voyage to the Yellowstone River,where he built a trading fort. He shortly after dispatched Coulter, the hunter before mentioned, to bring some of the Indian nations to trade. This man, with a pack of thirty pounds weight, his gun and some ammunition, went up-wards of five hundred miles to the Crow nation; gave them information, and proceeded from them to several other tribes. On his return, a party of Indians in whose company he happened to be was attacked, and he was lamed by a severe wound in the leg; notwithstanding which, he returned to the establishment, entirely alone and without assistance, several hundred miles.

Aside from this slim clue, his course can be speculated on the basis of "Colter's Route in 1807" and other data which appear on William Clark's Map of the West," published in 1814. The information being obtained by William Clark from John Colter on his return to St. Louis in 1810. Due to topographical errors and distortions of the Clark map, Colter's precise route is subject to wide differences of opinion.

Not only may there be reason for differences of opinion with respect to the accuracy of the William Clark map of 1814, in this regard, but there is reason to believe that the evidence as provided by Henry Brackenridge, who heard it from Manuel Lisa, is a compilation of more than one trip made by John Colter into the Yellowstone and Three Forks area. According to Thomas James, an associate of Colter's, the fight with the indians did not actually occur until the summer of 1808, near the Three Forks of the Missouri. On this occasion Colter was traveling with the Flatheads and they were attacked by the Blackfeet.

Different theories have been offered as to the precise route of John Colter's trip into what is now Yellowstone Park and surrounding country. One such theory is that Colter ascended the Bighorn, followed up the Shoshone River to near present Cody, went south along the foot of the Absaroka Mountains, up Wind River to Union Pass, into Jackson's Hole, thence probably across Teton Pass into Pierre's Hole, thence north via Conant Pass to the west shore of Yellowstone Lake and northeast to the crossing of the Yellowstone near Tower Falls, thence up the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, back across the Absarokas, thence south to the Shoshone River and back to Lisa's Fort by way of Clark's Fork and Pryor's Fork.

Another theory suggests the route was considerably shorter and confined much more to the immediate area of Yellowstone Park extending no further west than the close proximity of the western edge of Yellowstone Lake.

It does appear that only two landmarks are no longer questioned by historians. These are the "Hot Spring Brimstone" at the sulphur beds crossing the Yellowstone River near Tower Falls, also know as the crossing of the Bannock Trail, and the "Boiling Spring" near the forks of the Stinkingwater or Shoshone.

Areas of dispute include the identification of Clark's Lake Biddle and Lake Eustis. Further, physical evidence subject to debate and questionable as hoaxes is the finding in September 1889 , on the left side of Coulter Creek, a large pine tree on which was a deeply indented blaze, which after being cleared of sap and loose bark was found to consist of a cross thus "X" (some five inches in height), and, under it, the initials "J C" (each some four inches in height). Additionally, a reputed relic known as the "Colter Stone" consisting of rhyolite hand-carved roughly in the shape of a human head, with the inscribed lettering "John Colter 1808" was dug up in 1931 about five miles east of Tetonia, Idaho.

Still later in 1808 Colter and John Potts (also a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) were captured by Blackfeet on the Jefferson River. Potts was killed and dismembered. Colter was stripped naked and told to run for his life. He managed to escape after running "five miles" and hiding in the river, either under a beaver lodge, or in a backwater under logs and overhanging bank. Again he made his way back to manuel's Fort alone and unrecognizable to his fellow trappers.

After this feat of endurance, Colter remained in the wilderness until 1810, when he guided Colonel Menard to Three Forks, for the purpose of constructing a fort. This fort was subject to constant Blackfeet attack and after loosing numerous friends vowed to leave the mountains and return downriver to St. Louis. On May 1, 1810 John Colter and one other man left Fort Manuel Lisa and arrived in St. Louis on May 31, 1810.

Colter settled at the village of Charette, a few miles above the mouth of the Missouri River, and married a girl named Sally. Records indicate John Colter joined the U.S. Mounted Rangers on March 3, 1812 and was discharged on May 6, 1812. He died the next day, May 7, 1812. The specific cause of death was not indicated. John Colter's estate was settle in 1813 causing some to believe this was the year of his death.


Copyright 1992 James R. Fromm (jfromm@3rd1000.com)