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John Colter (c.1774 – May 7, 1812 or November 22, 1813) was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806). Though party to one of the more famous expeditions in history, Colter is best remembered for explorations he made during the winter of 1807–1808, when he became the first known person of European descent to enter the region now known as Yellowstone National Park, and to see the Teton Mountain Range. Colter spent months alone in the wilderness, and is widely considered to be the first mountain man.
John Colter was born in Augusta County, Virginia, near the town of Stuarts Draft around 1774. Sometime around 1780, the Colter family moved west and settled near present day Maysville, Kentucky. As a young man, Colter may have served as a ranger under Simon Kenton. He was 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) tall. The outdoor skills he had developed from this frontier lifestyle impressed Meriwether Lewis, and on October 15, 1803, Lewis offered Colter the rank of private and a pay of five dollars a month.
Colter, along with George Shannon, Patrick Gass and dog Seaman all joined the expedition while Lewis was waiting for the completion of their vessels in Pittsburgh and nearby Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. Prior to the expedition leaving their basecamp in Pittsburgh, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were away from the main party securing last minute supplies and making other preparations, leaving Sergeant John Ordway in charge. A group of recruits including Colter disobeyed orders from Ordway. Upon hearing of this infraction, Lewis confined Colter and the others to ten days in the base camp. Soon thereafter, Colter was court-martialed after threatening to shoot Ordway. After a review of the situation, Colter was reinstated after he offered an apology and promised to reform.
During the expedition, Colter was considered to be one of the best hunters in the group, and was routinely sent out alone to scout the surrounding countryside for game meat. He was instrumental in helping the expedition find passes through the Rocky Mountains and once located members of the Nez Perce tribe who provided details of rivers and streams that would lead further west. Once at the mouth of the Columbia River, Colter was among a small group selected to venture to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, as well as explore the seacoast north of the Columbia into present-day Washington state.
After traveling thousands of miles, in 1806 the expedition returned to the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota. There, they encountered Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, two frontiersmen who were headed into the upper Missouri River country in search of furs. On August 13, 1806, Lewis and Clark permitted Colter to be honorably discharged almost two months early so that he could lead the two trappers back to the region they had explored. After reaching a point where the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison Rivers meet, known today as Three Forks, Montana, the trio managed to maintain their partnership for only about two months. Colter headed back toward civilization, in 1807, and was near the mouth of the Platte River, when he encountered Manuel Lisa, who was leading a party which included several former members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, towards the Rocky Mountains. Colter once again decided to return to the wilderness, even though he was only a week from reaching St. Louis. At the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers, Colter helped build Fort Raymond, and was later sent by Lisa to search out the Crow Indian tribe to investigate the opportunities of establishing trade with them.
Colter left Fort Raymond in October 1807, and over the course of the winter, he explored the region that later became Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Colter reportedly visited at least one geyser basin, though it is now believed that he most likely was near present-day Cody, Wyoming, which at that time may have had some geothermal activity to the immediate west. Colter probably passed along portions of the shores of Jackson Lake after crossing the Continental Divide near Togwotee Pass or more likely, Union Pass in the northern Wind River Range. Colter then explored Jackson Hole below the Teton Range, later crossing Teton Pass into Pierre's Hole, known today as the Teton Basin in the state of Idaho. After heading north and then east, he is believed to have encountered Yellowstone Lake, another location in which he may have seen geysers and other geothermal features. Colter then proceeded back to Fort Raymond, arriving in March or April 1808. Not only had Colter traveled hundreds of miles, much of the time unguided, he did so in the dead of winter, in a region in which nighttime temperatures in January are routinely −30 °F (−34 °C).
Colter arrived back at Fort Raymond and few believed his reports of geysers, bubbling mudpots and steaming pools of water. His reports of these features were often ridiculed at first, and the region was somewhat jokingly referred to as "Colter's Hell". The area Colter described is now widely believed to be immediately west of Cody, Wyoming, and though little thermal activity exists there today, other reports from around the period when Colter was there also indicate observations similar to those Colter had originally described. His detailed exploration of this region is the first by a white man of what later became the state of Wyoming.
The following year, Colter teamed up with John Potts, another former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, once again in the region near Three Forks, Montana. In 1808, he and Potts were both injured fighting the Blackfoot Indians as they led a party of Crow Indians to Fort Raymond. In 1809, another altercation with the Blackfoot resulted in John Potts' death and Colter's capture. While going by canoe up the Jefferson River, Potts and Colter encountered several hundred Blackfoot who demanded they come ashore. Colter went ashore and was disarmed and stripped naked. When Potts then refused to come ashore he was shot and wounded. Potts in his turn shot one of the Indian warriors and died riddled with bullets fired by the Indians on the shore. His body was brought ashore and hacked to pieces. After a council, Colter was motioned, told in Crow to leave, and encouraged to run. It soon became apparent that he was running for his life pursued by a large pack of young braves. A fast runner, after several miles Colter was exhausted and bleeding from his nose but far ahead of most of the group with only one assailant still close to him. He then managed to overcome the lone man:
Again he turned his head, and saw the savage not twenty yards from him. Determined if possible to avoid the expected blow, he 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 throw 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.
Colter got a blanket from the Indian he had killed. Continuing his run with a pack of Indians following he reached the Madison River, five miles (eight km) from his start, and, hiding inside a beaver lodge, escaped capture. Emerging at night he climbed and walked for eleven days to a trader's fort on the Little Big Horn.
In 1810, Colter assisted in the construction of another fort located at Three Forks, Montana. After returning from gathering fur pelts, he discovered that two of his partners had been killed by the Blackfoot. This event convinced Colter to leave the wilderness for good and he returned to St. Louis before the end of 1810. He had been away from civilization for almost six years.
Sometime between 1931 and 1933, an Idaho farmer named William Beard and his son discovered a rock carved into the shape of a man's head while clearing a field in Tetonia, Idaho, which is immediately west of the Teton Range. The rhyolite lava rock is 13 inches (330 mm) long, 8 inches (200 mm) wide and 4 inches (100 mm) thick and has the words "John Colter" carved on the right side of the face and the number "1808" on the left side and has been dubbed the "Colter Stone". The stone was reportedly purchased from the Beards in 1933 by A.C. Lyon, who presented it to Grand Teton National Park in 1934. Fritiof Fryxell, noted mountain climber of numerous Teton Range peaks, geologist and Grand Teton National Park naturalist, concluded that the stone had weathering that indicated that the inscriptions were likely made in the year indicated. Fryxell also believed that the Beards were not familiar with John Colter or his explorations. The stone has not been authenticated to have been carved by Colter, however, and may have instead been the work of later expeditions, possibly as a hoax, by members of the Hayden Survey in 1877. If the stone is ever proven to be an actual carving made by Colter, in the year inscribed, it would coincide with the period he is known to have been in the region, and that he did cross the Teton Range and descend into Idaho, as descriptions he dictated to William Clark indicate.
After returning to St. Louis, Colter married a woman named Sallie and purchased a farm near New Haven, Missouri. Somewhere around 1810, he visited with William Clark, his old commander from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and provided detailed reports of his explorations since they had last met. From this information, Clark created a map which was the most comprehensive map produced of the region of the explorations for the next seventy-five years. During the War of 1812, Colter enlisted and fought with Nathan Boone's Rangers. Sources are unclear about when John Colter died or the exact cause of death. In one case, after suddenly turning ill, Colter is reported to have died of jaundice on May 7, 1812 and was buried near New Haven, Missouri on private land. Other sources indicate he died on November 22, 1813.