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sketch of Hawkins rifle

III. John Colter, the Phantom Explorer—1807-1808

The epic journey of discovery known as "The Lewis and Clark Expedition" was organized in the autumn of 1803 at Maysville, Kentucky. Here, on October 15, John Colter enlisted as a private with the stipulated pay of $5 a month, apparently answering the requirement for "good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree."

Colter shared all the hardships and triumphs of the expedition, as well as routine adventure in hunting, starving, Indian diplomacy, and getting chased by grizzly bears. 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, bound for Yellowstone River.

The extent of the wanderings of this trio is not known. In the spring of 1807 Colter alone paddled a canoe down the Missouri to the mouth of the Platte where he found keel boats of the Missouri Fur Company of St. Louis, led 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.

It was from this point that Colter made his famous journey of discovery during the autumn and winter of 1807-1808. 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 upwards 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 determined solely 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, presumably based on a conversation of 1810 at St. Louis, whither the trapper-explorer returned after hair-raising adventures with the Blackfeet in the Three Forks country. Inevitably, in view of the topographical errors and distortions of the Clark map, Colter's precise route is subject to wide differences of opinion.

A composite of theories offered by Hiram M. Chittenden, Stallo Vinton, Charles Lindsay, and Burton Harris, to mention only four qualified scholars who have undertaken to hypothecate Colter's route, 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 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.

The key to Colter's route is the identification of Lakes Jackson and Yellowstone, respectively, as Clark's Lake Biddle (named for the patron of his publication) and Lake Eustis (named for the Secretary of War), no longer questioned by historians. The "Hot Spring Brimstone" at the sulphur beds crossing of the Yellowstone River near Tower Falls and the "Boiling Spring" near the forks of the Stinkingwater or Shoshone (see Chapter IV) are other checkpoints which now seem quite firm. In addition, there are two interesting claims of physical evidence. While these are both necessarily debatable and subject to challenge as hoaxes, they deserve consideration. According to Philip A. Rollins, quoted by Vinton:

In September of 1889, Tazewell Woody (Theodore Roosevelt's hunting guide), John H. Dewing (also a hunting guide) and I, found on the left side of Coulter Creek, some fifty feet from the water and about three quarters of a mile above the creek's mouth, 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).

The blaze appeared to these trained hunting guides, so they stated to me, to be approximately eighty years old.

They refused to fell the tree and so obtain the exact age of the blaze because they said they guessed the blaze had been made by Colter himself.

The find was reported to the Government authorities, and the tree was cut down by them in 1889 or 1890, in order that the blazed section might be installed in a museum, but as I was told in the autumn of 1890 by the then superintendent of the Yellowstone Park, the blazed section had been lost in transit.

The second reputed Colter relic, which has survived, is the so-called "Colter Stone" which is now exhibited by the National Park Service in its new Fur Trade Museum at the Moose Visitor Center, Grand Teton National Park. This is a piece of rhyolite hand-carved roughly in the shape of a human head, with the inscribed lettering "John Colter 1808." This specimen was dug up in 1931 by William Beard and son while clearing timber on their farm about five miles east of Tetonia, Idaho, just within the Wyoming state line. In 1933 Aubrey Lyon, a neighbor, obtained the "stone head" in trade for a pair of riding boots, and presented it to park officials.

Colter's Hell today (with Superintendent Lon Garrison and wife). Photo by Author.

Although the natural tendency to view such finds with skepticism may be respected here, several factors lend plausibility. Members of the Beard family had no knowledge of John Colter. In 1931 the Colter story had not been well researched, and the version then was largely confined to the year 1807; yet if Colter made winter camp in the Teton Basin, and left a record to help while away the time, this would logically occur early in 1808. The stone itself yields no conclusive evidence on the basis of wear or patination; but some geologists agree that 125 years of weathering and soil acidity could have elapsed between the initial carving and time of discovery. At least the Colter Stone is a great historical conversation piece!

According to Thomas James, an associate of Colter's, the fight with the Blackfeet, mentioned by Brackenridge as occurring on Colter's Yellowstone journey, did not actually occur until the summer of 1808, near the Three Forks of the Missouri. On this occasion Colter was wounded in the furious battle between the Blackfeet and Flatheads.

Still later in 1808 Colter and John Potts (another Lewis and Clark veteran) were captured by Blackfeet on Jefferson River. Potts was killed and dismembered. Colter was stripped naked and told to run for his life. The Indians, who were to have great sport with Colter in this way, were enraged when he managed to escape his tormentors and kill one of them. He finally made his way back to Manuel's Fort, greatly emaciated.

After this fabulous feat of endurance, Colter remained in the wilderness until 1810, when he guided Colonel Menard to Three Forks, where a new fort was built, which was subject to constant Blackfeet harassment. Vowing never to return to the mountains, Colter returned downriver to St. Louis, arriving in May 1810 after six years of perils which well entitle him to claim as "The American Ulysses."

Colter settled at the village of Charette, a few miles above the mouth of the Missouri River, and married a girl named Sally. According to Washington Irving, in 1811 Wilson Price Hunt of the Astorian expedition attempted to persuade Colter to join him but this Colter declined to do after "balancing the charms of his bride against those of the Rocky Mountains." In 1813 he died, ingloriously, of "jaundice." Thus passed the phantom discoverer of the Teton-Yellowstone region, to whom James pays this tribute:

[Colter was] five feet ten inches in height and wore an open, ingenious, and pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone stamp. Nature had formed him, like Boone, for hardy indurance of fatigue, privation and perils . . . His veracity was never questioned among us and his character was that of a true American backwoodsman.

Upper Geyser Basin
Upper Geyser Basin from the cone of Old Faithful. W. H. Jackson photo, 1871.


Colter's Hell and Jackson's Hole
©1962, Yellowsone Association
Grant Teton Natural History Association

colter/chap3.htm — 05-Mar-2004