Colter, Member of U.S. Volunteer Mounted Rangers, Nathan Boone's
Co. Mar. 3, 1812 to May 6, 1812, Died May 7, 1812.
out of the ground in Yellowstone National Park. John Colter
is credited with discovering many of the wonders of the park.
understatement! So reads the tombstone of John Colter. No birth
date. No indication of his connection to the Corps of Discovery.
No mention of his discovering the wonders that became Yellowstone
was born in Staunton, VA, between 1773 and 1775. Whether Colter
was 30 or not when he joined the Corps, one thing was certain
to Meriwether Lewis: Colter had
acquired the "qualifycations" that "perfectly fit
[him] for the service." Lewis himself selected Colter as
one of the "Kentucky nine."
of Colter's life are sketchy. He left no journal detailing his
life or maps of his trek across the continent. What is known of
him comes largely from the journals of others, especially Lewis
and Clark's. The captains frequently assigned him responsibilities
that took him away from the main body of men. When George
Shannon went missing, Colter was sent with provisions in pursuit.
November 1805 William Clark chose Colter
during a scouting trip to deliver a message to Lewis, and an important
message it was. The route Clark had taken proved to be unsuitable
for the Corps. His message advised Lewis to adopt one of two plans
to proceed to the ocean. On a cloudy morning Clark, his manservant
York, and 10 menincluding Colterbegan
a nearly 20-mile trek to the "main ocean." The result?
Colter was among the first of the Corps to see the great Pacific
On the Corps'
return voyage two months before his commission was up, Colter
asked the captains for a release from the Corps. The captains
agreed. Colter wanted to return west with two fur trappers the
Corps encountered heading up the Missouri. Colter was eager to
head back to the rich beaver streams he had seen.
For the next
couple of years Colter trapped beavers, explored, and regaled
listeners with stories of boiling mud ponds, water shooting out
of the ground 100 feet into the air. He described the wonders
of Yellowstone to a disbelieving audience. What he described became
known as "Colter's Hell."
in Indian country had its risk, particularly in Blackfeet domain.
Death often was an easy escape for trespassers. Unfortunately,
the best beaver trapping was in Blackfeet country. Aware of the
risks, Colter and his partner, John Potts, another former member
of the Corps of Discovery, set their traps by night, emptied them
in the early morning, and hid during the day. They were emptying
their traps one morning when they heard a thundering sound. Colter
identified it as Indians, Potts as buffalo. Instead of seeking
cover, the two men continued in their canoe downstream. As they
rounded a bend, they encountered between 500 to 600 Blackfeet
lining the shores. Escape was impossible, so the men responded
to the gesturing of the Indians and headed ashore.
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