Fur trapper. Explorer. Member of Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery. US Mounted Ranger during the War of 1812. The life of John Colter reads like a fictional novel; filled with adventure, mystery and danger.
Born in Virginia sometime between 1773 and 1775, Colter moved to Kentucky with his family at the age of five where he learned to hunt and trap. When Meriwether Lewis began recruiting men in Kentucky in 1803 for his upcoming journey, Colter was one of the first to sign on as a permanent member of the expedition. Within a year of his recruitment, the members of the Corp of Discovery entered present-day North Dakota before continuing through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. On the return trip, as the expedition once again neared the Mandan villages of North Dakota in 1806, most of the men were ready for the comforts of home. But not John Colter.
Eager to take advantage of the rich beaver streams he had encountered in the West, Colter asked for a release from the Corps two months before his commission was up. After securing permission, he spent the next several years exploring and trapping for Manuel Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company. On these voyages, he became the first white American to see the region that would become Yellowstone National Park.
Trapping also came with risks. Colter narrowly managed to escape a deadly encounter with the Blackfeet Indians near Three Forks, Montana. John Potts, his partner and also a former member of the Corps of Discovery, did not. Further hostile encounters while hunting in Blackfeet territory finally prompted Colter to give up trapping by 1810.
Heading back east, he settled down with his new wife and son on a farm in New Haven, Missouri. But life as a farmer would not last long.
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Captain Nathan Boone, the son of Daniel Boone, mustered a company of Mounted Rangers. On this day, March 3, 1812, the same day the troop was organized, Colter enlisted. It was a decision that would cost him his life. Within weeks of joining Boone’s Rangers, John Colter was forced to return home after becoming ill. There, the former Corp of Discovery member died May 7, 1812.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Jenkinson, Clay S. A Lewis and Clark Chapbook: Lewis and Clark in North Dakota (Bismarck, ND: North Dakota Humanities Council; 2002)
Morris, Larry E. The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press; 2004)
Wheeling Jesuit University: Lewis and Clark An Epic Journey- http://lewisclark.cet.edu/student/corps/colter.html