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Private John Colter was born about 1774, near Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia. When he was about five years old, his parents moved to Maysville, Kentucky. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, rather shy, had blue eyes, was quick minded, courageous and a fine hunter. He was recruited by Captain Lewis at Maysville on October l5, 1803, one of the “Nine young men from Kentucky” and a permanent member of the expedition.

In February 1804, while Lewis was in St. Louis attending ceremonies transferring Upper Louisiana to the United States, Colter, along with three other Corps members stationed at Camp Dubois, defied Sergeant Ordway’s orders not to visit a local grog shop. Upon returning, Lewis punished their insubordination by confining them to the camp area for 10 days, warning that “on such occasions the directives of duly appointed sergeants had the same authority as the captains.”

In August 1805, Colter accompanied Captain Clark in an attempt to scout out a way through the Rockies. Clark, who was exploring the navigability of the north fork of the Salmon River (Idaho), chose Colter to deliver a message and a horse to Lewis, who was following with the main party. Clark’s note described the impassability of the Salmon River route and suggested that the explorers follow the recommendation of their Shoshone guide Old Toby to ascend the steep, mountainous, inter-tribal route leading to Lost Trail Pass -- which they did, with great difficulty.

Upon reaching the Pacific in November of 1805, Colter was one of 10 men to accompany Captain Clark on a trek to “the main ocean” from the expedition’s “Station Camp” at Chinook Point, on the Columbia River estuary. The party hiked 10 miles to Cape Disappointment and northward another nine miles, following the coastline of what is now Washington state.

In mid-August 1806, Colter was granted an early discharge from the Corps to become a fur trapper in partnership with two Illinois trappers, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson. The two men had followed the explorers as they drifted the Missouri downstream back to the Hidatsa and Mandan villages. Lewis and Clark agreed to let Colter leave the party as long as the other Corps members agreed to continue to St. Louis to be discharged. The men agreed, and Colter respectfully parted from the Corps.

He and his partners returned to the Three Forks region of the upper Missouri, a trapping enterprise that lasted only six weeks due to a falling out between Colter and the two others. Colter pursued his itinerant life as a trapper; in 1807. he joined a venture led by Manuel Lisa on the Big Horn River, and in 1809, he and former expedition member John Potts accompanied the Andrew Henry outfit, and were assigned to trap in Blackfeet country. It was during this period that he barely escaped being killed by “outrunning the Blackfeet, who had stripped him stark naked, in a race that became an American legend.” His partner, John Potts, did not survive the encounter.

During this same period, William Clark was putting the finishing touches on his map of the Northwest to accompany the long delayed publication of the 1814 edition of the journals. Colter supplied Clark with many new details gleaned from his travels into the Yellowstone, Wind River and other mountain country not known to Clark. Colter is credited with being the first white man to enter what is now Yellowstone National Park. In describing the geysers and other geothermal phenomena, it became known as “Colter’s Hell.” He eventually became a heroic figure among the trappers, traders, and mountain men who settled the American West.


  GM