Thursday, March 15, 2012

Army Scout - John Colter

I was taken to task by Jumpin Johnny on the post about Army Scout Jim Bridger. Johnny wrote: “Jim Bridger was a consummate liar. The Yellowstone area was first discovered and explored by John Colter. It was known for many years as "Colter's Hell". Colter was intrigued by accounts of the area when the Lewis & Clarke expedition he was a member of in 1806 skirted the area to the north on their trip west. Colter returned immediately to investigate after the expedition returned to the St. Louis area in 1807. Jim Bridger is the only person to say he "discovered" Yellowstone ... and it was a lie that seems to persist today.”

Johnny you are right that John Colter first explored the Yellowstone in 1806 soon after he was released from his duties as a scout and hunter from the Lewis & Clarke expedition. From 1806 to 1812 (a six year time span) Colter went back and forth between the West and civilization in St Louis. He enlisted in the Army for the War of 1812, dying as a soldier from disease. John Colter is mostly well known for “Colter’s Run” where he was captured by Blackfeet, given a chance to run, and he was able to escape covering some 200 miles until he reached safety. Jim Bridger on the other hand spent over 40 years in the West, scouting, guiding, surveying and mapping not just for the Army but for gold miners, wagon trains, railroads and even the Pony Express, as short lived as it was.

I am not taking anything away from Colter. His escape from the Blackfeet is legendary. I had planned on writing a post about him as well. But I am prone not to judge historical features too closely as all we know of them is through the fog of time.

John Colter (1774?-1813) - An American trapper and guide, Colter was born in Augusta County , Virginia about 1774. Sometime around 1780, Colter's family moved to Kentucky near present-day Maysville. In 1803, Colter enlisted in the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a private and during the expedition, Colter was considered to be one of the best hunters and scouts in the group.

As the expedition was returning to St. Louis, Missouri in 1806, Colter met up with two trappers, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, who were headed to the Yellowstone River. Colter was granted a discharge and join them heading into the Yellowstone country.

After this expedition Colter hired on to guide trappers from the Missouri Fur Company taking them into Big Horn River country. This expedition lead to the establishment of Fort Raymond on the Yellowstone River.

In October, 1807, Colter was sent out to linkup with Indian tribes in their winter encampments to negotiate Missouri Fur Company trapping and intent to trade with the Indians. Colter is thought to have traveled traveled by himself crossing the Wind River Mountains, the Teton Range, and was probably the first white man to see Jackson's Hole and Yellowstone Lake. About six months later, in 1808, Colter described this trip alerting other white men on the Yellowstone country and the hot springs.

Later in 1808, Colter joined another trapping expedition in Montana where he and another trapper named John Potts were wounded in a fight with Blackfoot warriors. About a year later another fight with Blackfeet resulted in Potts being killed and Colter captured. This was the start of colter's famous run where the Blackfeet stripped Colter and set him free so they could have sport chasing him.

Colter evaded the Indians, reportedly killing one Indian brave, successfully escaping and covering some 200 miles over the next 11 days until he made it back to Fort Raymond, albeit half dead.

History finds Colter guiding trappers again in 1810, surviving attacks from Blackfeet and probably Crow as well. Reportedly Colter provided much information to William Clarke for Clarke's development of maps.

Colter married and in 1812 enlisted in the Army during the War of 1812. He is known to have enlisted and fought under the name, Nathan Boone, and subsequently died from disease.

Here's where the Colter story takes a strange twist. Colter's wife, Sallie, receiving his body but unable to bury him for some reason, apparently kept his body in a cabin on their farm in Missouri where it remained until 1926 where his bones were found, linked to Colter by possessions with his name on it, and buried at a site over looking the Missouri River.

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