Colter’s Run

Excerpted from John Bradburys Travels in the Interior of America, 1809-1811 in Thwaites, Reuben G., (ed.) Early Western Travels, 1784-1846, Vol. V, Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, 1904.

The year was 1806. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was heading down the Missouri on its way back to civilization. The group met two trappersDickson and Hancockwho were on their way west to the rich beaver country. The two persuaded one member of the Expedition, 35-year-old John Colter, to accompany them.

The three spent the winter of 1806-1807 trapping by the Yellowstone River. Following a quarrel with his partners, Colter left in the spring and once again made his way down the Missouri. At its junction with the Platte River, he met a large party of trappers, the newly-formed Missouri Fur Company headed by Manuel Lisa. The company included several veterans of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: George Drouillard, John Potts and Peter Wiser. The group intended to establish a trading post on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Bighorn and felt that Colters previous experience in the area would be invaluable. Colter was easily persuaded to fall in with his old companions and headed up the Missouri again.

Arriving at the Bighorn in October 1807, the trappers built their post. They sent Colter into the surrounding country to contact local bands of Indians, tell them about the post and invite them in to trade. This seemingly simple mission turned out to be the first of John Colters amazing travels through the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Geysers Discovered

Struggling through heavy snows and frigid temperatures of a Montana winter, Colters journey took him to the smoking geyser basins in the vicinity of present-day Cody, Wyoming (which later became known as Colters Hell) through the Wind River Mountains to the Tetons, then up past Yellowstone Lake and possibly through the Lamar Valley near what is now Cooke City. John Colter was thus the first white person to see the wonders of Yellowstone Park, but his accounts of the geological oddities sounded so farfetched that he was the butt of many a mountain mans jokes for years afterward.

Passing the summer at the Bighorn, Colter traveled west in the fall of 1808 toward the Missouri Headwaters with a band of Crow and Flathead Indians. One days journey from the Three Forks, Blackfeet attacked the party. Wounded in the leg, Colter managed to survive, but the Blackfeet noted his presence with the Crow. This set the pattern of Blackfeet hostility toward whites in the Headwaters area, an antagonism which lasted for sixty years.

Colter at the Headwaters

This encounter with the Blackfeet didnt discourage the trapper from returning to the Headwaters. In later years, John Colter told of his adventure to John Bradbury, whose account is reprinted below:

This man came to St. Louis in May, 1810, in a small canoe, from the head waters of the Missouri, a distance of three thousand miles, which he traversed in thirty days. I saw him on his arrival, and received from him an account of his adventures after he had separated from Lewis and Clarks party: one of these, from its singularity, I shall relate.

Soon after he separated from Dixon, and trapped in company with a hunter named PottsThey were examing their traps early one morning, in a creek about six miles from that branch of the Missouri called Jeffersons Fork, and were ascending in a canoe, when they suddenly heard a great noise, resembling the trampling of animals Colter immediately pronounced it to be occasioned by Indians In a few minutes afterwards their doubts were removed, by a party of Indians making their appearance on both sides of the creek, to the amount of five or six hundred, who beckoned them to come ashore. As retreat was now impossible, Colter turned the head of the canoe to the shore; and at the moment of its touching, an Indian seized the rifle belonging to Potts; but Colter immediately retook it, and handed it to Potts, who remained in the canoe, and on receiving it pushed off into the river. He had scarcely quitted the shore when an arrow was shot at him, and he cried out, Colter, I am wounded. Colter remonstrated with him on the folly of attempting to escape, and urged him to come ashore. Instead of complying, he instantly levelled his rifle at an Indian, and shot him dead on the spot He was instantly pierced with arrows so numerous, that, to use the language of Colter, he was made of riddle of. They now seized Colter, stripped him entirely naked, and began to consult on the manner in which he should be put to death. They were first inclined to set him up as a mark to shoot at, but the chief interfered, and seizing him by the shoulder, asked him if he could run fast?

Colters Run

[Colter] knew that he had now to run for his life, with the dreadful odds of five or six hundred against him, and those armed Indians; therefore cunningly replied that he was a very bad runner, although he was considered by the hunters as remarkably swift. The chief led Colter out on the prairie three or four hundred yards, and released him, bidding him to save himself if he could. At that instant the horrid war whoop sounded in the ears of poor Colter, who, urged with the hope of preserving life, ran with a speed at which he was himself surprised. He proceeded toward the Jefferson, having to traverse a plain six miles in breadth, abounding with the prickly pear, on which he was every instant treading with his naked feet. He ran nearly half way across the plain before he ventured to look over his shoulder, when he perceived that the Indians were very much scattered, and that he had gained ground to a considerable distance from the main body; but one Indian, who carried a spear, was much before all the rest, and not more than a hundred yards from him. He had now arrived within a mile of the river, when he distinctly heard the appalling sound of footsteps behind him, and every instant expected to feel the spear of his pursuer. 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, also attempted to stop, but exhausted with running, he fell whilst endeavoring 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. The foremost of the Indians, on arriving at the place, stopped till others came up to join them, when they set up a hideous yell. Every moment of this time was improved by Colter, who, although fainting and exhausted, succeeded in gaining the skirting of the cottonwood trees, on the borders of the fork, through which he ran, and plunged into the river.

Escape

Fortunately for him, a little below this place there was an island, against the upper point of which a raft of drift timber had lodged. He dived under the raft, and after several efforts, got his head above water amongst the trunks of trees, covered over with smaller wood to the depth of several feet. Scarcely had he secured himself, when the Indians arrived on the river, screeching and yelling, as Colter expressed it, like so many devils.  In horrible suspense he remained until night, when hearing no more of the Indians, he dived from under the raft, and swam silently down the river to a considerable distance, when he landed, and traveled by night. Although happy in having escaped from the Indians, his situation was still dreadful: he was completely naked, under a burning sun; the soles of his feet were entirely filled with the thorns of the prickly pear; he was hungry, and had no means of killing game, although he saw abundance around him, and was at least seven days journey from Lisas Fort, on the Bighorn branch of the Yellowstone River. These were circumstances under which almost any man would have despaired. He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on a root much esteemed by the Indians of the Missouri, now known by naturalists as psoralca esculenta.