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John Colter, Member of U.S. Volunteer Mounted Rangers, Nathan Boone's Co. Mar. 3, 1812 to May 6, 1812, Died May 7, 1812.

Image of water shooting out of the ground at Yellowstone National Park.
Water shoots out of the ground in Yellowstone National Park. John Colter is credited with discovering many of the wonders of the park.

Talk about 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 National Park.

Colter 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."

Details 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.

In 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 men—including Colter—began a nearly 20-mile trek to the "main ocean." The result? Colter was among the first of the Corps to see the great Pacific Ocean.

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."

Trapping 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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