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Historical marker located in Stuarts Draft, Virginia

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, he is still best remembered for his explorations made after being honorably discharged in 1806. During the winter of 1807–1808, Colter 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.[citation needed]


Early years

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.[1] At 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m), Colter was a tall man for his time.[2] 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.

With Lewis and Clark

Prior to the expedition leaving their basecamp, 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[4] He was instrumental in helping the expedition find passes through the Rocky Mountains and once located members of the Nez Perce 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[4]

Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Jackson Hole

Map of Lewis and Clark's track, including Colter's route.

Colter left the 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.[7] 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.[7] 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 similar observations as 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.

Colter's Run

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 Blackfeet Indians as they led a party of Crow Indians to Fort Raymond. In 1809, another altercation with the Blackfeet resulted in John Potts' death and Colter's capture. After debating how to execute him on the spot, a chief led Colter away from the group of several hundred armed Indians. He was stripped of his clothing and allowed to run for his life. A fast runner, Colter managed to elude most of the group with only one assailant still gaining on 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.

John Bradbury, 1817.[8]

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 Blackfeet. 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.[8]

The Colter Stone

The Colter Stone, with the inscription "John Colter"

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 (33 cm) long, 8 inches (20 cm) wide and 4 inches (10 cm) 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".[9] 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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[10]

Final years

After returning to St. Louis, Colter married a woman named Sallie and purchased a farm near New Haven, Missouri.[11] 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.[12] During the War of 1812, Colter enlisted and fought with Nathan Boone's Rangers.[11] 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 on private land.[13][14] Other sources indicate he died on November 22, 1813.[15]


  • A plaque commemorating Colter was displayed at a roadside pulloff on U.S. Route 340 just east of Stuarts Draft, near his birthplace. When the road was widened in 1998, the plaque was moved just north of the intersection of 340 and Route 608.
  • The original script for director Cornel Wilde's 1966 movie, The Naked Prey, was largely based on Colter being pursued by Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming.[16]
  • A number of locations in northwestern Wyoming have been named after him, notably, Colter Bay on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park and Colter Peak in the Absaroka Mountains in Yellowstone National Park.[17][18]


  1. ^ Clark, Charles. "The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  2. ^ "Private John Colter". PBS online. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  3. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996). Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon and Shuster. p. 129. ISBN 0-684-82697-6. 
  4. ^ a b c "Private John Colter". The Personnel of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. U. S. Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  5. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996). Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon and Shuster. pp. 313–316. ISBN 0-684-82697-6. 
  6. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996). Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon and Shuster. p. 399. ISBN 0-684-82697-6. 
  7. ^ a b "John Colter, the Phantom Explorer—1807-1808". Colter's Hell and Jackson Hole. National Park Service. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  8. ^ a b "Colter the Mountain Man". Discovering Lewis and Clark. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  9. ^ a b c Daugherty, John (July 24, 2004). "The Fur Trappers". A Place Called Jackson Hole. Grand Teton Natural History Association. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  10. ^ "The Mystery of the Colter Stone". History & Culture. Grand Teton National Park. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  11. ^ a b "John Colter". The Lewis and Clark Rediscovery Project. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  12. ^ Zimmerman, Emily. "John Colter 1773?-1813". The Mountain Men: Pathfinders of the West 1810-1860. University of Virginia's American Studies project. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  13. ^ "Burial Sites". The Lewis & Clark Journey of Discovery. National Park Service. Retrieved 28 June 2006. 
  14. ^ "John Colter". Find A Grave. Retrieved 29 June 2006. 
  15. ^ Morris, Larry E. (2004). The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300102658. 
  16. ^ "Trivia for The Naked Prey (1966)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  17. ^ "Colter Bay, USGS Colter Bay (WY) Topo Map" (Map). TopoQuest USGS Quad. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  18. ^ "Colter Peak, USGS Eagle Peak (WY) Topo Map" (Map). TopoQuest USGS Quads. Retrieved 2008-05-09. 

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