The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> General History and Description
John ColterJohn Colter

member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and explorer of the Yellowstone region

John Colter was born on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, about 1775. His family moved to what is now Maysville, Kentucky, about 1780. Little else is known about his early life.

In 1803 Meriwether Lewis was recruiting men for he and William Clark's expedition into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. An eager Colter signed on, and he was formally enlisted into into the U.S. Army's First Regiment in October.

Colter proved invaluable to Lewis and Clark, as both hunter and scout, throughout the two-year expedition. He was also instrumental in helping the expedition find passes through the Rocky Mountains, and was able to get information about westward-flowing rivers and streams from the Nez Perce. He was one of the few expedition members to accompany Lewis and Clark all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River and to explore the coast of present-day Washington state.

By the time the expedition returned to the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota (in August 1806) most of its members were ready to get back to civilization, but Colter wasn't. After talking with fur trappers Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, Colter asked for and was granted a discharge so he could accompany the men on a fur-hunting trip up the Missouri River. The three-man partnership broke up after about six weeks, by which time it had reached western Montana.

Colter had made it back to the juntion of the Platte and Missouri rivers, in present-day Nebraska, when he met up with Manuel Lisa, who was leading a fur-trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Deciding he wasn't quite ready to return to civilization, Colter decided to accompany him. After helping to establish Fort Raymond at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers, Colter spent the winter of 1807 exploring alone, with assistance from Native American guides. Although the exact route he covered is unknown, he is believed to have become the first white man to see many features in what is now Yellowstone National Park, including its geysers and hot springs, during this period.

In 1808, Colter and John Potts, a comrade from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, were leading a party of Crow Indians to Fort Raymond when they were attacked and injured by Blackfeet Indians. The two were attacked by the Blackfeet again the following year, while on a fur-trapping expedition up the Jefferson River. Potts was killed and Colter was captured. The Blackfeet then stripped Colter of all his possessions and told him to run. Quickly surmising that he was being pursued as prey, Colter managed to kill one brave and steal his blanket before taking refuge under a pile of logs in the river. His pursuers finally gave up the chase, and Colter managed to make it to a trader's fort on the Little Big Horn River, after walking for eleven days with nothing more than the stolen blanket for warmth and berries and bark for food.

After spending a few months recovering at Fort Raymond, Colter returned to the site of the previous attack in order to retrieve his traps, and was once again attacked by Blackfeet. In 1810, he assisted in the construction of a fort at present-day Three Forks, Montana. After returning from gathering fur pelts, he discovered that two of his partners had been killed by the Blackfoot, and this event convinced Colter to leave the wilderness for good. He was back in St. Louis by the end of 1810.

Colter used his fur trade profits to buy a farm near New Haven, Missouri, got married, and had a son, but his "life of leisure" would prove to be short. After the War of 1812 broke out, he enlisted in Nathan Boone's Rangers. It was jaundice, not enemy bullets, that took his life, on May 7, 1812.

Discovering Lewis and Clark
Inside the Corps
Legends of America
The Mountain Men: Pathfinders of the West

Meriwether Lewis
William Clark
North Dakota
Yellowstone National Park
War of 1812

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> General History and Description

This page was last updated on February 03, 2017.