The Pathfinders – John Colter

Cimarron Legacy Facebook2The first true pathfinders on record were Lewis and Clark.

I say ‘on record’ because one of the rarely talked about aspects of American history is how many European people were here that simply faded into the inner continent and were never seen again. They aren’t on record. and of course the land had many native people. Again, no records.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t find paths, or that the people who came from other continents and vanished were dead.

Like all the mystery surrounding Roanoke, the simple truth was, people didn’t always stay on the shore. Sure Plymouth Rock was 1620, but there was a lot of exploration going on between Columbus in 1492 and the Pilgrims.

We don’t hear much about that because those people didn’t write things down.

When Lewis and Clark set off inland in 1804-06 they were keeping records, they charted their course, they drew maps, the recorded distances, they reported back and the word spread. They were the first pathfinders across the Rocky Mountains. Not, of course, counting all the Indians from that area who knew plenty of good paths.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition ended in St. Louis but the Pathfinder I want to talk about today, John Colter, a member of that expedition, never made it back. Instead, in the Mandan Village in present day North Dakota, Colter met up with two explorers and, with the blessing of Lewis and Clark, turned around and headed back west. His association with these two explorers didn’t last long and Colter turned to head back toward civilization and was a week out from reaching St. Louis when he met Manual Lisa—who later founded the Missouri Fur Trading Company, on his way to the Rocky Mountains.

Colter joined up with that party and headed back to the wilderness. Obviously a man who liked wild places. He traveled to the Teton Mountains, spent months alone in the wilderness and is considered by many to be the first mountain man.

Colter is most famous now for a journey he took in 1807-08 when he became the first known person to record his exploration of a region that contained Yellowstone Park. Except he didn’t record it well.

Colter was a tough man, no one could deny it, but he was a man of tall tales. In fact he was so widely known for his Colter 1exaggeration that NO ONE BELIEVED HIM when he spoke of Yellowstone as a land of geysers, bubbling mud and pools of water that steamed.

The exact area where he explored is somewhat vague but is almost certainly in or near Yellowstone with his wildly told tales of thermal wonders. Did hundreds of people rush off to see these wonders?

Nope, they laughed. They nicknamed this ‘fictional’ area Colter’s Hell.

One of his more famous exploits is known as Colter’s Run.

In 1809 Colter was captured by hostile Blackfeet Indians. He was stripped naked and told to run. Only he wasn’t being let go, he was running for his life.

A fast runner, Colterm ran for miles, naked and exhausted, chased by the  Blackfeet who’d captured him. He was soon far head of most of the group but one man was close enough Colter attacked. Here is an account written eight years later by a man named John Bradbury:

“Colter suddenly stopped, turned round, and spread out his arms. The Indian, surprised by the suddenness of the action, and perhaps at the bloody appearance of Colter, also attempted to stop; but exhausted with running, he fell whilst endeavouring to Colter 2throw his spear, which stuck in the ground, and broke in his hand. Colter instantly snatched up the pointed part, with which he pinned him to the earth, and then continued his flight.”

Blackfeet continued their pursuit. Colter reached a river five miles from where he’d started the run and hid inside a beaver lodge. He emerged after dark and walked for eleven days to a trader’s fort on the Little Big Horn.

Even after this near death experience, he stayed another year in the wilderness, but finally in 1810 he returned to St. Louis. He’d been gone nearly six years. Colter found his old friend William Clark and reported all he’d seen. From this report a map emerged. Though there were inaccuracies, a better map of the region didn’t come along for seventy-five years.

 

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July 2016

Mary Connealy
Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules
Updated: May 17, 2016 — 10:42 pm

7 Comments

  1. Fascinating history, Mary. Those early explorers had to be a special breed. Even as introverted as I am, I think I would go crazy being alone for so long. The survival skills were amazing, as well. I can’t imagine outrunning an entire tribe of Blackfeet. Colter must have been as tough as they come.

  2. I wonder how many mountain men and even the folks along the Oregon Trail DID survive.
    We hear a very specific number of Mormans who died along the Morman Trail but we never hear that about the Oregon Trail.
    Of course Mountain Men weren’t famous for reporting in so it’s hard to keep track of them as a group.

    I suspect I’d have fallen off the covered wagon at the first river ford and drowned. Tough isn’t exactly my middle name!

    1. From my lifelong interest in the Oregon Trail I’ve read estimates ranging from 200,000 to as many as 500,000 travelers headed west. So I generally think of the average being around 300,000 or so, but then it all depends on how many years are included in the overland march doesn’t it? One number that is fairly consistent from various sources, though, is that it is estimated that 20,000 people died going west, primarily in most cases from cholera. River crossings and drownings were the next largest peril, but typhoid, poor drinking water, food poisoning and accidents also were hazards. The smallest threat was from Indians contrary to the old-time westerns we watched. It’s thought about 300 some deaths may have been from Indians who were more likely to help than not.

  3. Love your post! Thank you, Mary!

  4. Looking forward to no way up coming out in july.

  5. Great post Mary, I am looking forward to your book in July

  6. Thank you for an interesting “history lesson.” I had heard of John Colter and some of his exploits, but did not realize he had been part of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition team. It is not too surprising people did not believe his accounts of the Yellowstone area. Even if he had not been known for his exaggerations, it was a hard story to accept.
    A movie, A Man Called Horse, came out in 1970. It has some similarities to Colter’s story, especially the naked run for his life.

    ife

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