Guest Blogger

Bravery Personified: The Life of John Colter

Colters Hell

Steam rises from the pools of hot water at Colter’s Hell during a winter visit to Yellowstone Park a few years ago. As I snapped the pictures, two brave souls walked the catwalk above the bubbling hot water.

Today, I’d like to welcome a guest blogger, Mary Lou Schulte, Editor of the Osage County Historical Society newsletter.  She has graciously given me permission to print this article she had published some time back about John Colter.

I worked for several years in Osage County, Missouri, with Eric Thompson, triple great grandson of John Colter.  Like his ancestor, Eric has exhibited considerable athletic prowess.  When I mentioned that to him, Eric laughed and said, “He ran from the Indians, and I raced against opponents.”

Here in Missouri, where the real west started, history is all around us, all we have to do is look for it.

– Walt Ryan, Sundown Trail

 
 
 

Bravery Personified:  The Life of John Colter

by Mary Lou Schulte
 

The saying goes that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes truth is much more incredible than fiction. The life of John Colter is a testament to that concept. His adventures were so unbelievably daring in scope, thrilling in discovery, and terrifying in life-threatening ordeals that we modern folk can hardly take them in. He deserves a place in history beside that of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett Zebulon Pike, etc. Yet many do not know his name.

John Colter was born about 1775, the fourth generation of his family in America, the first being his great grandfather, Micajah Coalter, a pioneer of Scottish ancestry, who came to Virginia from Northern Ireland around 1700. It is written that John Colter was of sturdy frame, five feet ten inches in height, and a pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone type. (His last name has also been spelled “Coulter,” but Colter is the accepted version.)

John Colter

Colter joined the Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, on October 15, 1803 at Maysville, KY, the fourth man to join the company. As a private, he was entitled to $5.00 per month pay, but Congress voted to raise the pay to $10.00, and to grant each man 320 acres of land west of the Mississippi River. Meriwether Lewis informed Clark that he had made “a judicious selection,” and although Colter was taken on trial, Lewis believed he would answer “tolerably well.” This opinion turned out to be quite an understatement.Colter was experienced in woodcraft and the use of firearms, and was strong, active and intelligent. At first he was somewhat unruly, but after being forbidden to leave camp for ten days, he settled down and became one of the most dependable members of the company. The party needed fresh meat in their diet, and Colter was an expert hunter. In the late summer of 1804, after a few days’ hunting, it was recorded that Colter brought back “1 buffalo, 1 elk, 3 deer, 1 wolf, 5 turkeys, 1 goose and a beaver.”

In the fall of 1804, they arrived at the Mandan village, and here they built Fort Mandan, which was their winter home. In April, 1805, they again set forth–a total of 33 souls, including Toussaint Charbonneau, his wife Sacagawea (the young Shoshone woman who was to render inestimable service to the expedition), and their infant son, Jean Baptiste. After incredible toils and hardships, they reached the mouth of the Columbia in the first week of November. Near the Pacific Ocean they built a post named Fort Clatsop, where they spent the second winter.

 
On the way back to St. Louis, Colter met up with two trappers, Joseph Dickson and Forrest Hancock, near the mouth of the Yellowstone. They asked Colter to join them, and he, eager for more adventure, asked for his discharge. Captain Clark wrote, “As we were disposed to be of service to anyone of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done, we agreed to allow him the privilege.” The rest of the company traveled on downstream toward St. Louis. Author Stephen Ambrose writes, “Colter turned back upstream, back to the wilderness, back to the mountains, on his way into the history books as America’s first mountain man and the discoverer of Yellowstone National Park.”

After parting company with Dickson and Hancock in the spring of 1807, Colter came across another fur trading expedition, that of Manuel Lisa. Some of his former companions were in the group, so he was easily persuaded to join them. During his travels, he encountered hostile Blackfeet Indians and was severely wounded in one fight. However, he was determined to trap in the Three Forks region. A one-time companion, Thomas James, once wrote, “Dangers seemed to have for him a kind of fascination.” The next time he confronted the Blackfeet, the result would become a legend known as “Colter’s Run.”

Colter had gone with a companion named Potts to the Jefferson River to look for beaver. Suddenly a war party of several hundred Blackfeet approached and ordered them to come ashore. Colter obeyed, thinking he might escape with losing furs only, but Potts stayed in his canoe, seeing Colter stripped naked by the Indians. Potts foolishly shot one of the Indians, and was then shot, dragged to shore, and cut to pieces with hatchets and knives. Colter had no idea what horrible fate awaited him. After holding a council, the chief waved him away. As he walked toward freedom, he saw some of the braves throwing off all encumbrances, as if for a race. He realized he would have to run for his life. He ran like the wind toward the Madison branch, five miles away. His nose began to bleed profusely. Finally, in looking back, he saw that he had outstripped all his pursuers, save one. He turned, accosted his enemy, seized his spear, and stabbed him to the ground. He reached the stream ahead of his attackers, plunged in, and took refuge inside a pile of driftwood or beaver dam. He remained there until the next morning, when it was evident that the Blackfeet had gone. He headed for Manuel’s Fort, and after about a week, arrived there exhausted by hunger and fatigue. He was emaciated and his feet were swollen and pierced by many thorns, but he was alive. He not only recovered, but went back on his own voyage of discovery.

In the winter of 1807-08, Colter was sent by Manuel Lisa from ‘Fort Manuel, also known as Fort Raymond, at the mouth of the Big Horn River, to invite Indians to bring furs to the fort. He started late in November, alone and on foot, carrying a thirty-pound pack on his back, besides his gun and ammunition. It was during this time that he made the discovery of what is now called Yellowstone National Park. It wasn’t recorded at the time, and many doubted his veracity, but trees and rocks were found there with dates and names on them to verify his claim. Colter is believed to be the first white man to see the stunning hot springs and geysers, one of which is now called “Colter’s Hell.” He must have returned in the spring of 1808, since he made several trips from Fort Raymond that year. When he crossed the rough country to the North Fork of the Shoshone, he noticed the odor of sulphur, and gave that stream the name “Stinking Water River.”

One more time Colter ventured into the Three Forks area and was again attacked, but managed to escape. Finally, he made a vow to God that he would never repeat such a foolhardy venture. However, in late September, 1809, he met up with an expedition headed by Manuel Lisa and Pierre Chouteau. They asked him to be their guide, and forgetting his vow, he agreed. A fort was constructed near the Jefferson River, but only a few days later the Blackfeet attacked. Five members of the expedition were killed, and they lost most of their traps, horses and beaver pelts. This crushing blow caused the enterprise to be abandoned. Colter finally returned to St. Louis, where his stories of discovery and adventure were met with skepticism by some and with awe by others. His claims have been verified over the years, however, and a stone with the inscription “JOHN COLTER -1808” carved on it is now on display in Yellowstone National Park.

 

John Colter took a tract of bounty land on the south bank of the Missouri River in Franklin County and turned to farming. He married Sarah “Sally” Loucy, and had at least two children: a son, Hiram and a daughter, Evalina, both of whom grew to adulthood.

Never one to shirk his duty, Colter served in the War of 1812 under Nathan Boone, son of Daniel, beginning his service on March 3, 1812 and being discharged three months later on May 6. He must have been ill when he enlisted, as he died of jaundice on May 7, 1812. Nathan Boone held Colter in very high regard, naming his son, born May 13,1816, “John Colter Boone.”

Ruth Colter-Frick, author of Courageous Colter and Companions, believed that John Colter was buried in Franklin County on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near New Haven. This is the cemetery where his son, Hiram, is buried. An old headstone with the initials “J.C.” carved into it was uncovered close to Hiram’s grave. Other writers have speculated that he was originally laid to rest on Tunnel Hill, a bluff overlooking the Missouri near Dundee, where he lived. When the Missouri Pacific Railroad tunneled through that area in the 1850’s, a number of bones were found, indicating a burial ground. But where he is buried is not as important as the legacy he left. His name will forever be synonymous with adventure, discovery, devotion to duty, and bravery in the face of death.

 

The story of John Colter is of more than passing interest. Many of his descendants inhabit the mid-Missouri area; some are natives of Osage County, including the children of Frank and Clara Colter Knoerr: John, Wilbur, Marie Thompson and Helen Reed, who descend from Hiram’s eldest son, John B. Colter. Hiram’s daughter, Mary Ann, married Charles C. Davis, from whom the Leonard and Perry Davis families of Linn were descended. In 1994, Blackfeet Indians joined whites at Three Forks in a celebration to honor the memory of “Courageous Colter.”
 
 

Categories: American History, Guest Blogger, History | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Runaway Snowman

Sundown Trail has a guest blogger today – my daughter, Marti Ryan.  She is a musician and video blogger in Nashville, TN.
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I have always loved my Dad’s stories of when he was young. He grew up in a time that I can’t imagine – one room schoolhouses, riding horses, heading off into the woods with his dog to hunt furry woodland creatures . . . those days are long gone, but live on in stories and pictures. I’ve encouraged Dad to write a blog for years, and was tickled pink when he decided to start writing Sundown Trail. He has a collection of short stories called Tales from Clear Creek that will be available as an e-book soon, and he’s currently working on his first western novel.

But I didn’t come over here to write a guest blog to brag on my Dad (although I could spend an entire page doing just that). I thought it would be fun to write a blog about one of MY childhood memories. As you can probably tell from the title – it’s about a snowman.

 

Winter is drawing to a close, and as usual, Mother Nature is keeping us on our toes. She’s been teasing us with beautiful sunny warm weather, and then promptly throwing snow and cold back in our faces to remind us that’s she’s not quite finished with winter yet. I live in Tennessee, and bless their hearts, Tennesseans FREAK OUT when they see a snowflake. Missourians just slow down and plow ahead with their lives, but everything screeches to a halt here in Nashville at the MENTION of snow. Everyone cancels everything, and races to the store to buy milk, bread, and eggs. It’s become a local joke to post pictures on Facebook of empty shelves in the grocery stores when snow is forecasted.

Snow doesn’t last long here, so when we get any kind of accumulation, children rush outside for a few hours in a few inches of snow to have snowball fights, sort-of-kind-of sled, and build itty-bitty snowmen. Last week I opened my back door to an accumulation of snow, and briefly thought of building one of these itty-bitty snowmen as a tribute to the end of winter. After drying off my snowy, muddy doggies, I instead chose to make a hot cup of tea and remember a Missouri winter long ago when I built my very first snowman . . . .

 

 

I don’t remember if it was my idea, or Mom’s idea, but I remember being super-excited as I bounded into the front yard to play in the snow with Mom. My parents and I lived in a little yellow house on a little street in a little town in Southeast Missouri. The front yard was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow, and I tramped around in the sparkling stuff, fascinated that it was sticking to my boots, and comparing my small bootprints to Mom’s big ones. She showed me that the snow not only stuck to my boots, but it stuck to itself, and I watched in amazement as she rolled a small snowball around the yard and made a large snowball. We repeated this action two more times, and soon had a stereotypical snowman ready for personalizing.

Our little yellow house was heated with a wood stove in the basement, and Mom took pieces of bark from the woodpile and made eyes and a smiling mouth for the snowman. The bark mouth kinda looked like he had teeth, which gave him a whimsical look. She then completed his face with the traditional carrot nose. I remember really really wanting a top hat like I’d seen on the Frosty the Snowman cartoon, but we didn’t have one. Instead, Mom placed one of Dad’s hunting caps on his snowy bald head. I was too little to reach the snowman’s face to help with the personalization, but not to be left out, I took little pieces of bark and made buttons down his front. Mom completed his look with a piece of pink plaid fabric for a scarf.

He was perfect. Or at least, in a little girl’s eyes he was perfect. My very first snowman. I was thrilled. Dad was impressed when he came home from work, and happy to sacrifice his hunting cap for a short while. My snowman was right by the living room window, so I spent the rest of the evening beaming at him from inside the warmth of the little yellow house. I went to bed that night and dreamed happy snowy little girl dreams.

 

The next morning, I bounced out of bed and raced to the living room. Mom was working on something on the dining room table, but I barely noticed her as I raced to the window . . . 

. . . and noticed the curtains were closed.

This was odd. Even as a little girl, I was attune to the circadian rhythm of the household, and the living room curtains were always closed at night, and opened first thing in the morning.

Yet there they were. Closed.

Not to be deterred, I threw open the curtains to greet my snowman. . . and the front yard was empty.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

The snowman melted overnight. That would have been the logical explanation.

However, that would also have been a really boring story. And I don’t do boring.

With glistening, wide eyes, I whirled around to Mom and opened my mouth to ask where my snowman was. No words could come out. I was so shocked he had vanished. Mom was coming around the side of the dining room table with her arms outstretched to administer comfort and an explanation. I sat in a miserable heap in her lap as she told me what happened.

It had gotten bitterly cold overnight, and everything froze solid. Including my snowman. There was a basketball game in town that night, and so all the high school kids were cruising around town afterwards. Mom and Dad woke up in the middle of the night when they heard noises in the front yard. They went to the window just in time to see some teenage boys load my entire frozen-solid snowman in the back of a pickup truck and drive away.

I was positively heartbroken.

Mom gathered up the tearful little girl piled in her lap and carried me over to the dining room table. She was making me a brand new snowman. There was not enough snow to make another snowman outside, so she created me one out of posterboard and construction paper. And this one had a top hat! Also, buttons and teeth.

Me and my Snowman

He was a very cool snowman.

Later in the week, we heard that several people had seen a snowman with teeth in the back of a pickup truck cruising around town. Looking back, I’m pleased to know he had quite an adventure before he reached the fate of every snowman when winter ends. And I’m happy that the boys had so much fun cruising around with my snowman.

A friend of my mother’s who wrote poetry immortalized my snowman in verse, and titled the poem “The Runaway Snowman.” There’s a book published somewhere with my snowman’s poem in it.

 

 

I learned very early the “make lemonade out of lemons” lesson as I played with my posterboard snowman well into the summer. There were other winters, and other snowmen, but my first one – my perfect snowman that I had for less than 24 hours – I will always remember. I hear that seven inches of snow was dumped on Missouri today. I imagine there are hundreds of snowmen in hundreds of yards across the Show-Me-State tonight, happily smiling frozen smiles throughout the night and ready to be greeted in the morning, while little boys and girls are dreaming happy snowy little boy and girl dreams.

 

 

Snowman The 3 of us

 

 

Categories: Guest Blogger, Missouri, times gone by, Winter | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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