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.)
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.”