Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

John Colter an American trapper and guide, was born in Augusta County, Virginia.  In 1803 he enlisted in the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1806, on the return trip, he was given a discharge in order that he might join a party of trappers. The following year, he met the expedition of Manuel Lisa and was hired to guide the party to the mouth of the Big Horn, where a post was built, later being called Fort Raymond.  That winter, Lisa sent Colter out to all the winter Indian camps to alert them of his presence and desire to trade. Alone, with only his rifle and a 30lb pack, Colter traveled an estimated 500 miles that winter with the help of Indian guides. His route has been disputed, but general consensus is that he was the first white man to see Jackson's Hole and Yellowstone Lake. He is believed to have been the first white man to see that region, which is now included in Yellowstone National Park.

The next year, while trapping, he and another hunter named Potts plunged into the wilds of the best beaver streams of the Blackfoot hunting grounds. The two men knew the great risk they ran and they knew also the ways of the Indians. They set their traps at night, took them up early in the morning, and hid during the day.  One morning they found themselves surrounded.  Potts killed one and was immediately killed with many arrows.  Colter was stripped naked and all his possessions divided among the ambushers. They killed his partner and Colter waited to see his own death. However, they set him free and told him to run, which of course he did immediately.  He soon understood that he was the prey in a game of hunting. After running a couple of miles, Colter turned around and seeing the only Indian that was close by, he reversed direction and attacked the Indian, killing him with his own spear. Taking his blanket and spear, he  continued to run until he came to a river. By hiding in the river under a pile of logs, Colter was able to evade his pursuers. He walked the 200 miles back to Fort Raymond with only a blanket for warmth and bark and roots to eat. After eleven days, he stumbled into the stockade, more dead than alive.

After gaining strength at Fort Raymond, he returned to the site of the attack to retrieve the traps he had thrown in the river. Again he was attacked, but this time he escaped unscathed.  Shaken, but not ready to give up his exciting and dangerous life, Colter signed on to lead another Missouri Fur Company party in 1810. True to past experience, the group was attacked by the Blackfeet and Colter finally vowed to leave the west.  He moved to Missouri, built a cabin, and settled down.  He died of jaundice in 1913.

Colter did not leave any records of his journeys and also left no map of his own, but he did have a conversation with his former leader, William Clark, in 1810. It is assumed Colter told Clark of the things he had seen in his years of travel as a trapper, as the map that appeared in Nicholas Biddle's 1814 version of the Lewis and Clark journals reflects Colter's knowledge.



For further reading, I recommend two biographies by S. Vinton (1926) and B. Harris (1952).



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Very interesting post, Milt. 


I recall being told by a living historian who portrayed a mountain man that these men were very unique individuals.  He said they were the type who simply did not fit in to so-called normal society and that they tended to be loners who liked to live on the edge.  He went on to say that had these men had lived during our time they would have most likely become bikers.  Interesting analogy, and, based on accounts such as this, probably accurate.

I agree somewhat with Gayle. I have read extensively about the "Mountain man" and find the overwhelming number of those that stayed with the profession for more than a couple of years to fit into the mold as she discribed. (Not all, but some)

 They were, by and large, anti-social, probably a bit insecure in society, mostly uneducated, and many from poor and/or broken homes. In the mountains, they did not have to "measure up" to what society deemed they should be. They did not have to worry about social etiquete(sp). They did not have to worry about their grammer or their manners. They were totaly free to do just as they wished, whever they wished, governed only by Mother Nature (and of course the local redmen). Of course I am speaking of the "free trappers."


This had to be an example of one of the freest life styles ever developed.


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