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  • Trevor Perkes

Was John Colter the First White Explorer of Yellowstone?

There have been many individuals who have helped shape the history of Yellowstone National Park. In the late 1700s fur traders and other so called “mountain men” were known to travel the Yellowstone River in search of Native Americans with whom they traded goods. It has been noted that occasionally these traders would give random reports of their journeyings, but without any kind of official confirmation of their reports, or some might say stories, there was no reason to follow up. History also records that rarely did these early fur traders venture beyond the river to see the other grandeurs of the area that is now Yellowstone National Park, and nor did they officially report their findings to the folks on the nation’s western frontier, let alone members of Congress in Washington, DC.

What Might Have Been

The 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, traveled near Yellowstone in route to the Pacific Ocean. They passed through Livingston, MT, about 50 miles north of the park’s northern border. Had this famous group of explorers actually ventured into and explored Yellowstone, they could have brought back information about the park that probably would have been viewed by the public and law makers as credible, and possibly at that time laws could have been written or acts passed that would preserve this unique land for future generations.

A Solo Winter Adventure into Yellowstone

However, one member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter (born in Augusta County, Virginia around 1774), having heard the “tales” of fur trappers from the Yellowstone area, opted to return and explore the area during the winter of 1807-1808. Most historians believe this to be accurate, that he solo traveled deep into Yellowstone by way of present-day Cody, WY eventually traveling the western shores of Yellowstone Lake before returning to Montana. As such, John Colter is credited by most historians to be the first EuroAmerican to explore and bring back reports of Yellowstone, especially the geothermal areas.

Colter’s Reports Met with Skepticism Back Home

Upon returning back to the then western frontier, Colter’s reports and descriptions of what he witnessed were met by a very skeptic audience back east. Colter’s descriptions of “boiling mud”, “spouting water”, “steam coming from the ground” and “beautiful colored pools” were beyond imagination to the uninformed and his descriptions were labeled as “fictional entertainment” and the “ravings of a deranged man”. It was reported that people laughed and scoffed at Colter for such stories, and sarcastically labeled the area he described as “Colter’s Hell”.

Birth of the First National Park & a Legacy

During the next approximately 40 years, other explorers, trappers, and mountain men who visited the Yellowstone area returned with stories similar to those that Colter reported. However, skepticism remained with the public back east and it wasn’t until the 1871 Hayden Expedition that visual proof in photograph and art drawings, and the credible word of the team of scientists who were a part of the expedition, that the descriptions of the grandeurs of Yellowstone presented by John Colter were finally recognized. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was established.

Unfortunately, Colter died in Missouri in 1813 (although there are conflicting reports of his death recorded in history). He went to his grave knowing that his reports of what he witnessed in the Yellowstone area were viewed by many as the ravings of a deranged man, fictional, and beyond imagination. Time and validation have now erased the skepticism of the mockers and scoffers. John Colter is now recognized as the first known person of European descent to enter the region which later became Yellowstone National Park and to see the Teton Mountain Range. Let’s hope he knows of his enduring legacy now as the first white explorer of the guts of Yellowstone.

Another Legacy – the Escape of John Colter from Blackfeet Indians

Despite going to his grave with the knowledge of others skepticism about his “tales” of his journeyings in Yellowstone, John Colter left a legacy of his heroic escape from Blackfoot Indians in 1809. In what is now Montana, he and a fellow trapper, John Potts, joined up to trap beaver in territory known to be Blackfoot hunting grounds. Setting their traps by night, retrieving them early in the morning, and staying hid during the day the two successfully trapped beaver until that fateful day when the two were surrounded while paddling their canoe up a stream in search for prime locations in which to place their traps. With no chance of escape they paddled to the Indians who had signaled them to do so.

In the ensuing skirmish Potts shot and killed an Indian but was immediately filled with arrows and died. The Indian chief, determined to make a sport of killing Colter, determined that Colter would be given a few hundred yards head start to flee from the numerous young Indian braves. However, he was stripped of his clothing and disarmed, and told to run for his life – and he did just that.

It is reported that Colter ran across the plains toward the Jefferson River about 6 miles away. The plains were riddled with cactus thorns that dug into his feet, but he never stopped running. It wasn’t until about a mile before the river that Colter, seeing that only one Indian warrior was close to him, stopped and turned toward his pursuer. Completely exhausted himself the warrior fell to the ground losing grasp of his spear. Colter grabbed the spear and killed the Indian. Now with the other warriors drawing closer, Colter turned and ran on eventually gaining cover in nearby trees at the bank of the river. After seeing their fallen comrade, the enraged Indians pursued on in search for Colter, who with the precious time he had gained from their stopping at their fallen warrior, had slipped into the river and swam under a large pile of drift wood that had created an extensive network of logs on the river. Some reports state that the log pile was actually a beaver dam.

Not until after dark when it seemed as the Indians had long since left the area, Colter finally left his hiding spot and journeyed on. It was over a week later that he, naked, bleeding, sunburned, starved, and worn down, reached the trading post.

Colter’s Final Exploits

After giving up on trapping, Colter moved to New Haven, Missouri where he purchased a farm and in 1820 married a woman named Sallie. Then in 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain, and Colter enlisted, fighting under Nathan Boone. It was under his command that Colter died, not by British bullets, but by jaundice while in the service of his country in 1913 (although some sources report his death in 1812). His remains were shipped back to his wife in Missouri who was said to have buried him on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.

Such is the story of the famed mountain man, John Colter, and one of the most important characters in the early history of what would become Yellowstone National Park.

Reference. The information here was taken from articles written by Addison Erwin Sheldon in 1913, and later compiled by Kathy Weiser

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