john colter, the original mountain man -- 4/26/21

Today's selection -- from Wyoming: A History of the American West by Sam Lightner Jr. At the conclusion of their famous expedition, Lewis and Clark’s force began to disband and return east -- all but John Colter, whose love of the West led him to stay there, where his ability and exploits made him revered by those who came after:
"Lewis and Clark split the corps into two groups to increase the ground they could cover and thus learn more, then the group came back together on the Missouri in present-day North Dakota. All the men could smell the barn now, and after two years in the wilderness were ready to be home again. All but John Colter. He was enjoying the time in the wilderness. As the expedition neared its end, Lewis and Clark noted that Colter was no longer leading the group downstream, but had slowed down and was following the main group into camp each evening. Over dinner, he talked about how much he loved hunting, and that the streams were ripe for trapping.

"On August 14, 1806, the corps floated ashore at the familiar Mandan village they had departed from less than a year and a half earlier and were now sure they were less than six weeks from the log cabins of St. Louis. That evening they met two trappers, Forrest Hancock and Jo Dickson, who were headed upstream to trap beaver through the winter. A few days later, just before the group was setting off for St. Louis, John Colter told Lewis he wished to join the two trappers and not return to civilization. Lewis consulted Clark, and Colter was released from duty with the Corps of Discovery. The next morning the two parties set off in opposite directions on the Missouri River. 

"Colter, Hancock, and Dickson are thought to have spent the winter in a small lean-to camp where Pryor Creek meets the Yellowstone River. The confluence of the two streams is a few miles northeast of modern Billings, Montana. We are fairly sure their camp was near a winter village of the Crow as the men were trying to foster a relationship with that tribe. The Crow traditionally call themselves the Absaroka, which translates to 'Bird People' or 'Children of the Large-Beaked Bird.' Like the Flathead, they were known to be welcoming to strangers and to always share their food. One rule was absolute with the Crow: If you were invited into a lodge, you were protected by the tribe as if you were a member. At the time, they controlled much of what is now central Wyoming and southern Montana, including much of the Wind River Valley, though that was disputed with the Shoshone.

"Through the snow and cold, the three men gathered beaver pelts, hunted deer, and strengthened the bond with their new Indian friends. When the ice broke on the Yellowstone, they loaded their canoes and headed downstream with the valuable pelts. At the Mandan village they met the adventurous businessman named Manuel Lisa. He was constructing a fort just across the river from where the Corps of Discovery had erected theirs. A Spaniard who'd moved his family to St. Louis, Lisa's newly created Missouri Fur Company was on the forefront of what he felt would be a booming business. He had hired George Drouillard, John Potts, and Peter Weiser, all from the Corps of Discovery, to work as trappers on the upper Missouri. They would also build a series of forts along the river that would help link the trappers with the company headquarters in St. Louis. Manuel Lisa had heard of Colter's legendary frontier skills from the other trappers, and he offered the man a job as soon as they met. Perhaps giddy with meeting his compatriots, and despite having been in the wilderness for three and a half years, Colter happily agreed to return to the life of trapping and hunting. Three months later, the men of what was now called the Missouri Fur Company were at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers building what Lisa dubbed Fort Remon (named for Lisa's young son in St. Louis). Colter put in a few days of work on the fort, then began his fabled trek to the south to strengthen ties with the Indians and learn what he could of the beaver habitat in the future state of Wyoming.

"The cold wind, nearly constant along the Clarks Fork, pushed Colter south. Snow was in the air, but it had not yet stuck to the ground, and the explorer was happy to not have to wear the snow shoes just yet. He worked his way up the stream, then entered the foothills of the Absaroka Range, then turned back south and east. Manuel Lisa had brought a few horses to Fort Remon, but Colter chose not to ride on this excursion, noting that horses do not do well in deep snow and can't handle the cold well. He knew it would simply be too hard a trek for the animals.

"Just east of present-day Cody, Colter came across one of the landmarks the Crow had foretold, the stinking springs. The sulfurous smell, like rotting eggs, hung in the air where water seeped from the ground and ran into the river. The Crow had said the area was dangerous, that their children couldn't sleep around it, and that sometimes they could hear and feel the ground shake with the bad spirit. Colter would later tell his fellow trappers about the stinking springs, and they would go on to call it Colter's Hell. That name still sticks with some in the modern town of Cody, but the more common name is Shoshone Springs. Colter's Crow friends had said there would likely be another Crow village a few miles west along the river the stinking springs ran into. He found the hospitable Crow village later that day.

"Colter stayed with the Crow camp on the west side of Spirit Mountain, then took their advice and continues south and a bit east to the Owl Creek Range and Blondy Pass. From the pass he could see hundreds of miles south across The Valley of the Warm Winds. Now known as the Wind River Valley, Colter descended the Owl Creeks and crossed a few steams as he trended west. He had been told this was Crow territory but that the Shoshone disputed the claim and it was possible he would meet Shoshone braves on the Wind River. The Crow and most other tribes referred to the Shoshone as the 'Snakes' as their sign language name was a hand waved across the chest as if slithering. Understanding the rivalries of the various tribes, and human nature, he would have assumed the Shoshone would see the valley as their territory that had been disputed by the Crow. Aligning himself with either could be fatal. Colter didn't fear the Shoshone as he spoke a bit of the language, having been taught it by Sacagawea when they were with the Corps of Discovery. Passing into the north end of the valley, Colter never ran into the Snakes. He followed the Wind River to the northwest, passing the site of modern Dubois and up Togwotee Pass.

"There was good and bad to trekking in the winter months, and the good may have persuaded Colter to go at this time. The grizzly bears he and the Corps of Discovery had come to respect were, for the most part, laying low in their dens, so a sudden attack was unlikely. However, the snow and intense cold was going to make for difficult travel. Now going up over 8,000 feet, Colter was forced to don his snow shoes and had to be wary of avalanches. On a clear day, he again reached the Continental Divide, the headwaters of the Wind River, and could see a line of jagged peaks to the west. The mountain range, which would soon take the name 'Pilot Knobs' and then a few years later be renamed Les Tres Tetons, was a bit foreboding as the valley below the mountains was disputed by multiple tribes, among them the Blackfeet.

"He'd been wary of the Blackfeet for a couple years, since the bad run-in he'd had with them when the corps was crossing the Continental Divide to the north. The Blackfeet were actually a confederation of five large tribes, and together they reigned over much of the northern Rockies. Like virtually all of the Native American tribes, the Blackfeet generally dealt with captives in one of two ways: adoption or ritualized torture. Adoption was what the women and children could hope for, but not a big, strong, well-armed man like John Colter. If the Blackfeet found him in their territory, he could expect a long, slow, painful death.

"Watching for movement in the distance, Colter descended the pass, noting a large lake at the base of the northern mountains. There is some argument as to what path Colter took once he reached the valley floor of Jackson Hole. For years, people believed he walked north and west, and this makes sense as the Tetons come to a fairly abrupt end at the north end of the valley. This path would have meant avoiding another steep, frigid mountain pass for at least the foreseeable future. However, most scholars now believe Colter walked south through the valley, staying close to the trees on the east side so he was less visible to war­like Indians. We also now know it was very unlikely he would have run into Blackfeet or Shoshone during a winter in northwest Wyoming. They were far too smart to try to endure a winter in Jackson Hole.

"Teton Pass has always been an obvious route in and out of the valley, and he would have seen it from miles away. However, getting to it required crossing the Snake River, and fording any stream the size of the Snake is a dangerous ordeal in winter. One slip and you are soaked in water that's 33 degrees Fahrenheit, in your only clothes, and with wet gear that makes it difficult or impossible to start a fire. He would have likely found a spot to cross where the stream slows and splits into numerous braids. That spot was likely between modern Wilson and Jackson, near where Highway 22 currently crosses. He likely killed an elk, deer, or moose as they used the south end of Jackson Hole as a wintering ground up until the settling of the town of Jackson. After fording the river, the climb out of Jackson Hole, with its steep avalanche-prone slopes, was arduous. It would have been December by then and far colder than when he'd left Fort Remon, with daylight only lasting nine hours or so, and it's likely that Colter decided to give winter its due respect. Somewhere on the west side of the Tetons, in modern Pierre's Hole, Colter found a place to spend the coldest month.

"John Colter's trek through northwest Wyoming in the winter of1807 was an incredible feat of bravery and endurance. Historians are not certain of his exact path, but based on his descriptions of the region this is the likely line of travel.

"One would think a trapper, or 'mountain man'' as he would commonly have been called, would have to carry a huge load of equipment to survive a winter in Wyoming, but John Colter proved otherwise. As modern mountaineers know, if you want to figure out what is truly essential to survive, force yourself to carry it. Colter set out from Fort Remon with a 32-pound pack, and that weight included the snow shoes. His kit would become pretty standard for other trappers. The pack itself was made of linen coated with linseed oil to repel water. He'd have worn a linen shirt of a similar material a base layer, then perhaps a blanket sewn into a poncho for insulation. A rookie trapper would likely have a pair of heavy linen pants, but now in his third year in the wilderness, John Colter's linen pants would have rotted away and buckskin would be the replacement garment. Colter likely wore moccasins sewn in the style of the Crow, complete with fur leggings to deal with the cold and snow. He carried a seven-inch hunting knife and a canteen that was filled whenever he encountered running water.

"Like Colter, many of the trappers would hail from Kentucky, and the Kentucky long rifle was the standard for hunting big game. It was a source of protection, too, and was never more than an arm's length from its owner. A buckskin bag of lead balls for the rifle and a horn of powder were kept handy, but there was also spare powder, a block of lead, and a bullet mold in the pack for making more ammunition. If he were a bit extravagant, Colter might have carried a hatchet for cutting firewood. The mountain man carried a flint and often a small rope of dried sagebrush bark to get a fire started on the wettest days. Finally, a small stash of tobacco was almost a necessity when breaking the ice with newly befriended Indians.

"John Colter's spike-camp in Pierre's Hole was likely along a south-facing dirt or rock wall where he could take full advantage of sunny days. He would have slept next to a fire and worn everything he had, even perhaps slipping his feet into the pack during the night. The men who would follow him would live a similar lifestyle with the same supplies, plus the added weight of six to ten beaver traps and the collected fur they were saving for trade. A few of those men would carry a bible and a diary, but nothing more for entertainment. The procurement of food and maintenance of the equipment and collected furs would take up most of the long, cold nights." 



Sam Lightner Jr.


Wyoming: A History of the American West


Sam Lightner


March 2020


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