Antelope Hunting photo
Field & Stream Online Editors

They were called mountain men. They were the first european explorers of the american west. They prided themselves on their skill with a rifle; on their ability to fight anything-man or beast-and whip it, to drink enough to kill an ordinary human, to endure any hardship, to out-Indian the Indians. And brave as they were, tough as they were, most of them found unmarked graves while they were still young. bad luck killed some. A moment’s carelessness claimed others. One misjudgment too many did for the rest. Almost none of them lived “to go down to a town”-to leave the mountains alive.

But one did. John Colter lived as dangerously as any mountain man, but he was a little tougher and a little luckier. He thought quickly in a crisis and always made the right decision when his life depended on it. And unlike almost all of his peers, he knew when to back off.

Colter was born-sometime between 1770 and 1775-and raised in Virginia, and enlisted in Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery as a private on October 15, 1803. According to Thomas James, author of Three Years Among the Mexicans and Indians, Colter stood 5-foot-10 and wore an “open, ingen(u)ous, and pleasant countenance.” James added that Colter’s veracity “was never questioned among us,” which seems to be the opinion of everybody who met the man.

The expedition spent its first winter near St. Louis, gathering supplies and more recruits before starting up the Missouri in the spring. Colter didn’t begin well in Missouri; some of his local hunting trips ended at a whiskey shop. For that he spent 10 days in camp, and when the expedition started he was assigned to rowing, poling, and dragging a keelboat against the Missouri’s current.

But by the time the expedition reached the James River in what is today’s South Dakota, Colter had shown enough woodsmanship that when George Shannon got lost chasing the expedition’s two horses, Colter was sent to find him. Shannon thought the expedition had passed him, so he kept walking and turned up on the riverbank 16 days later, almost starved, having missed elk and buffalo with every bullet he had. Following him, Colter managed to kill a buffalo, an elk, three deer, five turkeys, and a goose.

An Instinct for Survival

Soon the captains assigned Colter more time hunting, and he showed he was not only skilled but quick-witted. The expedition found grizzlies very hard to kill, and often aggressive even unwounded. When charged by a big grizzly on a sandbar in the Missouri, Colter couldn’t find a tree, so he waded into the river where the bear lost its advantage in speed and strength and eventually gave up the attack. Thereafter, Colter’s river retreat became a standard method for dealing with bad-tempered grizzlies.

Hunting in the Bitterroot Valley, as the expedition prepared to cross the Rockies, Colter ran into some Flatheads out chasing Shoshone horse thieves. The Indians seemed alarmed, but Colter lay his gun on the ground and raised his empty hands. By sign language he invited them to the Corps of Discovery camp, where one Flathead agreed to guide them across the mountains. It made all the difference. They almost starved in the crossing and surely would have without their Flathead guide.

By the time they arrived on the Oregon coast, Colter had proved to be one of the finest canoeists in the expedition. He was sent by the captains to paddle the wild surf along the coast in search of a good place to spend the winter. And he’d grown so valuable as a hunter that he was ordered to hunt elk rather than help build Fort Clatsop.

After a miserable winter the expedition struggled back over the mountains, then split up to explore both the Missouri and Yellowstone. Lewis’ Missouri party ran into two beaver trappers named Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hancock. They’d left St. Louis the year after Lewis and Clark, trapping as they traveled uprer. But they’d been robbed by Indians, losing beaver pelts and almost all their gear. Lewis let them accompany the expedition.

Colter’s Walk

Along the way, Dixon and Hancock talked about all the beaver they’d found. Many of the corps’ men were already trapping beaver, hoping to supplement the Army pay of $5 a month. When Colter asked if he could leave the expedition to join Dixon and Hancock, the captains approved as a reward for his service.

The partnership didn’t work out. After wintering with Dixon and Hancock on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, Colter paddled his canoe downstream-alone. Almost 1,000 miles later, at the mouth of the Platte, he encountered some of Lewis and Clark’s ex-soldiers, along with an obnoxious but well-funded Spaniard named Manuel Lisa, who hired Colter and several others as trappers. Traveling back up the Missouri and Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, they built Lisa’s trading post. Most Indians were in their winter camps; Lisa sent his toughest men to bring in business.

One spent all winter in a Crow camp giving away all his trade goods, but Colter took his job seriously. In the late fall of 1807 he shouldered a 30-pound pack filled with jerky, gunpowder, lead, a blanket for himself, and blue beads and steel knives for the Indians. Over the next few months he walked over some of the highest mountains in Wyoming, arriving back at Lisa’s post in the spring of 1808 with tales of lakes he couldn’t see across and smoking springs that smelled of brimstone.

Where did Colter’s Walk take him? No white man had seen the country, and even after the Lewis and Clark expedition, geographers still hadn’t grasped the size of the American West. We do know that Colter headed southwest from Lisa’s fort to the area around present-day Cody, Wyoming, where he saw smoking earth and boiling water shooting into the air, on the sulfurous river that local Indians called the Stinkingwater. (The name was eventually changed to Shoshone by the civic leaders of Cody, who felt that Stinkingwater discouraged tourists.)

From the Stinkingwater, Colter traveled Indian trails along the eastern foothills of the Absaroka Mountains (named after the friendly Crow tribe) and crossed the Wind River Mountains. The Winds rise from sagebrush valleys like a granite-and-limestone wall for over 100 miles, their highest peaks almost 14,000 feet above sea level. Togwotee Pass, where Colter crossed at the head of Wind River, nears 10,000 feet. (I lived in that part of Wyoming in my early 20s, and even though I grew up in the Rockies, the thin air near the peaks of the Winds often slowed me to one step per breath during summer backpacking trips. I cannot imagine crossing Togwotee Pass in the middle of January, carrying both a pack full of trade goods and a heavy flintlock rifle.)

Once through the pass Colter dropped down to Jackson Lake, in the high sage valley of present-day Teton Park, then headed north into the confusing canyons along the Continental Divide just south of Yellowstone Lake. He found the lake but did not see the great geyser basin just to the west (“Colter’s Hell” of later legend was not Old Faithful and the sulfur springs along the Firehole River but rather the now extinct geysers on the Stinkingwater). He did cross the Yellowstone River below the lake near the river’s Grand Canyon and huge waterfalls. He then crossed the 10,000-foot mountains along the eastern edge of the park, over snowdrifts that still drive the buffalo from the valleys each winter, and dropped down to the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, where he’d spent the previous winter with Dixon and Hancock, in another 100 miles arriving back at Lisa’s trading post. Contrary to legend, Colter probably didn’t walk all that way by himself, subsisting only on game he killed. He almost certainly stayed in Indian camps, trading beads and steel knives for food. But he did walk 500-odd miles through unmapped country in the coldest months of a Rocky Mountain winter.

Colter’s Run

That summer Colter joined a band of Flatheads and Crows traveling through the Three Forks where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers form the Missouri. On the Gallatin a large band of Blackfeet attacked. Shot in the leg, Colter dragged himself into the brush, then kept firing. After vicious fighting, both sides withdrew.

The Blackfeet had recognized Colter, but the beaver houses he had seen on every river and creek near the Three Forks proved irresistible. After his leg healed, he and another former Lewis and Clark man named John Potts decided to trap beaver on the Jefferson. Careful around the Blackfeet, they set their traps at night and checked them at dawn, hiding in the willows along the river during the day.

It was not enough. One morning several hundred mounted Blackfeet appeared on the banks and motioned the trappers to paddle their canoe ashore. Colter, suspecting robbery, eased his traps into the river before picking up a paddle. And what he did next saved his life. He stepped onto the bank, but Potts tried to paddle away and within seconds was a dead man. The Blackfeet then stripped Colter naked and decided to have a game of chase-the-white-man. Allowing Colter a head start, they ran after him, spears and axes in their hands.

They hadn’t reckoned on his speed; even other mountain men considered Colter to be an exceptionally strong and enduring runner. Prickly pear cactus covered the plain between the Jefferson and Madison. Soon Colter’s bare feet were shredded. Even so, he pulled away from all but one of the Blackfeet, but a couple of miles later Colter began bleeding from his nose, and the warrior started gaining. As he pulled near, Colter suddenly turned, grabbed the Indian’s spear, and killed him.

Taking the spear and the warrior’s blanket, Colter ran again, finally diving into the Madison and swimming under a logjam where he stayed, nose barely above water, as the Blackfeet climbed over the driftwood and searched the shore. Toward sunset they finally gave up, and after dark Colter swam downstream until he felt safe. He walked barefoot to Manuel Lisa’s trading post, 200 miles east on the Yellowstone River, surviving for more than a week on roots dug up with the spear.

Or at least that’s a distillation of Colter’s Run. Told and retold over the years by both historians and fiction writers (including such notables as Washington Irving), the details vary. Some say Potts died full of arrows; others say bullets. (Odds lean toward both.) Some say the Blackfeet cut Potts into pieces and threw them in Colter’s face. Some say the Blackfeet caught the trappers on a creek and Colter escaped by diving into the Jefferson. After his departure from the carefood. But he did walk 500-odd miles through unmapped country in the coldest months of a Rocky Mountain winter.