There’s not much known about John Colter’s early life, but we do know that in 1803 he was in his late twenties and he saw an advertisement that was looking for “good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree for an expedition into the West.” John responded to the add and was hired by Captain Meriwether Lewis along with eight other men from Kentucky as a private earning $5/month.
President Thomas Jefferson had just finalized the Louisiana Purchase with France that immediately doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson had then tasked Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with exploring and mapping the new land while also studying the area’s flora and fauna and establish trade with the local Native American tribes. The group, known as the Corps of Discovery, began to gather members and supplies at Camp Dubois, near Wood River, Illinois before they started their journey. In February 1804, Meriwether Lewis was away from the Camp while attending ceremonies in St. Louis, so John and three other Corps members defied Sergeant Ordway’s orders and visited a local grog shop and then came back to camp drunk. When Lewis came back and heard about his men getting drunk, he punished the four men by not letting them leave the camp for 10 days. Soon after, Colter was court-martialed after threatening to shoot Sergeant Ordway. Colter apologized and asked for forgiveness, so he was welcomed back into the corps.
In May 1804, the Corps of Discovery left Camp Dubois and made their way westward. John was considered one of the best hunters for the Corps. Colter quickly became one of the main hunters for the corps and would often take off by himself and then return with meat for the group. Colter was also very handy in finding passes through the Rocky Mountains and bartering with the various tribes they met along the way. In 1805, Colter was hunting alone when three Nez Perce hunters approached him. Colter said of the encounter “They were alarmed and prepared for battle with their bows and arrows. I relieved their fears by laying down my gun and advancing towards them.” Colter invited them to accompany him to the Corps of Discovery’s camp. When they arrived at the camp, Old Toby, who was the expeditions Shoshone guide, spoke to them using signs while Lewis and Clark fed them boiled venison and presented them with presents. The Nez Perce stayed for dinner but left peacefully shortly after.
When the Corps reached the mouth of the Columbia River, Colter was among a small group that was selected to explore the shores of the Pacific Ocean and venture up the seacoast into present-day Washington State.
The Corps turned around at the Pacific Ocean and started to make their way back to civilization. In 1806, the Corps returned to the Mandan villages in what is now North Dakota. While they were there, Colter met a couple of hunters named Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, that were going back up the Missouri River to go hunting and trapping. The convinced Colter that he should come with them, so Colter asked Lewis and Clark’s permission to leave the Corps. Lewis and Clark agreed to an early discharge from the Corps as long as no one else from the Corps wanted to leave as well. Everyone agreed and Colter was officially discharged and left with the trappers.
Colter, Hancock, and Dixon left the Mandan village with 20 beaver traps, a two-year supply of ammunition, and other tools like knives, hatchets, rope, etc. Because there was a lot of tension between white people and the Blackfeet tribe that inhabited the lower Missouri, the trio decided to try their luck in the Yellowstone Valley, where the local Crow tribe was much friendlier. No one really knows why, but Colter, Hancock, and Dixon only trapped together for about two months before going their separate ways.
In 1807, Colter started to make his way back to civilization, perhaps in need of more supplies. While paddling down the Missouri River to the mouth of the Platte River, he ran into a group of keel boats owned by the Missouri Fur Company of St. Louis. The company was being led by a man named Manuel Lisa. Lisa quickly saw how valuable Colter could be to the company and recruited him to guide them to the mouth of the Big Horn River. Once they arrived, Colter helped the company build Fort Raymond that would serve as a base and trading post for the trapping company.
In the winter of 1807-1808, Lisa gave Colter the job of locating bands of Crow Indians and informing them of the new trading post. Colter took off alone, with only his rifle and pack and covered around 500 miles. Along the way, Colter recruited Indian guides to help him make his way across the Wind River Mountains, the Tetons, and explore what is know Jackson’s Hole and Yellowstone Lake, which made Colter the first white man to ever be in the Yellowstone region. When he arrived back at Fort Raymond in the spring of 1808, he told the other trappers all about the geysers and hot springs that he had seen. Most were skeptical about Colter’s account, but they nicknamed the Yellowstone area “Colter’s Hell.”
In the summer of 1808, another member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery named John Potts arrived at Fort Raymond. Colter and Potts teamed up and decided to go beaver trapping in the region near Three Forks, Montana. They each took their own canoe, and while paddling down the Jefferson River, a war party of around 800 Blackfeet Indians suddenly appeared on the river bank. Colter quickly threw his beaver traps over the side of his canoe into the river. Colter figured the Indians wanted to rob them and since the water was shallow here, he hoped that he could come back for his traps later. The chiefs of the war party ordered the men to come ashore, and since there was no way he could fight his way out or escape, he obeyed. Once Colter reached the shore, Potts and Colter were seized, disarmed, and stripped completely naked.
Potts was still in his canoe watching this all go down. Colter called out to him to come ashore. Potts refused, saying he would rather die than be robbed and stripped naked. A Blackfoot then shot Potts in the hip. Potts dropped down in his canoe and came back up with his rifle in his hands. Colter asked Potts if he was hurt and Potts said “Yes, too much hurt to escape; if you can get away do so. I will kill at least one of them.” Then Potts aimed his gun and shot a Blackfoot, killing him instantly. As soon as that happened, hundreds of bullets rained down on Potts. As soon as the shooting was over, the Blackfoot warriors rushed into the river and pulled the canoe containing a dead Potts onto the shore. They dragged Potts’ body out of the canoe and then used their hatchets and knives to dismember him. They pulled out Potts’ entrails, heart, lungs, all of the guts, and then threw those into Colter’s face.
A relative of the Indian that Potts had killed ran at Colter with a tomahawk in his hand, but he was held back from killing Colter by others. Colter watched his friend be completely torn apart, all while expecting to be killed at any moment. The Blackfeet quickly called a council to determine Colter’s fate. The council agreed to have fun with Colter’s death. A chief pointed to the open prairie and motioned his hand back and forth, basically saying “run that way.” Colter figured that they intended to shoot him while he was running across the prairie. Colter started to walk. An older Blackfoot started yelling at him and signing at him to go faster, but Colter figured that if he was going to die anyways, he would rather walk then run.
When Colter got about 80 to 100 yards away from the war party, he saw some of the younger Blackfeet throwing off their blankets and leggings and warming up like they were getting ready for a race. Colter knew that instead of getting shot, he was going to be ran down and killed by whichever warrior caught him first. So Colter then takes off running as fast as he can. Almost immediately after he started running, he heard a war-whoop behind him. He looked back and saw a large group of warriors with spears running after him. Colter ran as fast as he possibly could. He saw the Madison Fork about five miles in front of him and figured if he could just make it to the river, he would have a chance to escape.
When he got about halfway to the river, he felt his body start to give out and his nose started to gush blood. He stopped and looked back. Colter saw the he had way outrun all of the warriors except for one that was quickly approaching with a spear in his right hand and a blanket in his left hand. Colter yelled at the warrior in Crow to save his life. The warrior didn’t seem to hear him and dropped his blanket so he could grab his spear with both hands. He rushed at Colter and made a lung with the spear to try to stab him, Colter grabbed the spear near the spearhead with his right hand and broke off the blade. The warrior fell to the ground after losing his balance. Now that he was unarmed, he begged for his life in the Crow language, but Colter stabbed him anyway. Colter removed the spear blade from the dying Blackfoot and grabbed the warrior’s blanket. The other Blackfeet were now closing in on him, so Colter took off running again towards the Madison River.
He made it to the bank of the river and saw a beaver den close by. Colter dove under the water and came back up in the beaver den. He was able to get up into the dry part of the beaver den and hide. He could hear the Blackfeet searching for him and then climb up on top of the beaver den, all while worrying that they would break the den open or set it on fire. Colter stayed there until nightfall and he couldn’t hear the warriors looking for him anymore. Colter swam out of the beaver den and down the river. Colter could see the narrow mountain pass that was the only way in and out of the valley, but he figured that the Blackfeet would surely be guarding it.
So Colter continued to swim down the river for another five miles and then got out where he then proceeded to climb up an extremely tall, steep mountain that was covered in snow. He climbed four miles up this mountain using only rocks, shrubs, and tree branches to hang onto. Once he reached the top, it was nearly morning, so he laid low and rested for the rest of the day. Once it was night again, he made his way down the mountain and got to the bottom around dawn. Once he reached the bottom of the mountain, he started to make his way through the open plain towards Fort Raymond, which was about three hundred miles northeast of his current location.
Colter walked through days and nights, only stopping to rest when his body couldn’t keep moving. He ate roots and tree bark for sustenance. After eleven days of walking, he finally reached Fort Raymond with nothing but the blanket and spear head. He was so emaciated and beat up, that no one at the Fort recognized him until he told them who he was.
That winter, after he had rested and recovered from his harrowing escape, Colter decided that he would go back to where he dropped his beaver traps into the Jefferson River so he could get them back. Colter figured that the Blackfeet would be staying in their winter quarters weathering the winter storms, so he shouldn’t have to worry about them. After making his way through the mountain pass into the valley, Colter made camp on the bank of the river. He started a fire so he could cook his dinner when he heard the sound of leaves and branches breaking behind him. He looked into the darkness, but couldn’t see anything when suddenly bullets started whizzing by him. Colter took off and, once again, started climbing up that super steep mountain. He made it to the top, rested throughout the day, made his way back down the next night and started his journey back to the Fort.
When he got back to the Fort, Colter said “If God will only forgive me this time and let me off, I will leave the country day after tomorrow and be dead if I ever come into it again.” He then left with another man named William Bryan for Philadelphia. On their way to the Philadelphia, they were attacked by the Blackfeet, but they were able to escape and hide in a thicket. They finally made their way safely to St. Louis where Colter married a woman named Sallie and purchased a farm near New Haven, Missouri.
In 1810, Colter met up with William Clark and told Clark off all that he had seen while exploring the Yellowstone area. William Clark used Colter’s descriptions to draw a map of the area that was then published in the 1814 edition of his journals. That map, even though it was filled with inaccuracies, was the most comprehensive map of the area for the next 75 years.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Daniel Boone’s son Nathan created a frontier police force named the Mounted Rangers that was made up of frontiersman that would patrol the frontier and build blockhouses for defense. John Colter signed on with the Nathan Boone’s Rangers and unfortunately died during the war, but not in combat. He contracted jaundice and died on May 7, 1812. His remains were shipped back to his wife Sallie and she buried him on a bluff near New Haven, Missouri that overlooks the Missouri River.
In 1931, William Beard and his son were clearing timber on their farm near Tetonia, Idaho, which is on the Idaho/Wyoming border. They dug up a stone hand carved roughly into the shape of a human head with the inscription “John Colter 1808”. In 1933, Beard traded the stone to his neighbor Aubrey Lyon for a pair of riding boots. Aubrey Lyon then gave it to Grand Teton National Park officials and it is now exhibited at the Moose Visitor Center at Grand Teton National Park.
“Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West” by Stephen E. Ambrose
“Private John Colter” on PBS.org
“Why John Colter May Be The Most Badass Mountain Man of the American West” by Wyatt Redd
“John Colter, his years in the Rockies” by Burton Harris
“Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans” by Thomas James
“John Colter – Fearless Mountain Man” by Kathy Weiser-Alexander