People have told and retold John Colter’s adventures with embellishments that turn him into a legendary figure like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyon. But Colter really did cross the plains naked after outrunning hundreds of Blackfeet warriors who were screaming for his scalp. He really was the first white man to visit what is now Yellowstone Park. And his reports of a stinking place where springs spout steam and boiling water were greeted as fantasy and labeled “Colter’s Hell.”
Colter was a member of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition that first explored the American West beginning in 1803. He came within a hundred miles of what is now the park in 1806 when he accompanied William Clark on the return trip down the Yellowstone River.
Later, Colter sought permission to muster out of the Corps of Discovery so he could return upriver with a pair of trappers. After extracting a promise from the rest of the men that they wouldn’t seek similar treatment, the Captains acceded to his request.
Colter’s partnership soon broke up and he joined Manuel Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company. In 1807, Lisa sent Colter up the Yellowstone River to make friends with the Crow Indians and bring them back to his trading post. While he was on this mission, Colter passed through parts of what is now Yellowstone National Park.
Apparently illiterate, Colter left no written accounts of his travels. But on a visit to Saint Louis, Colter told his adventures to the English writer and naturalists William Bradbury. In a footnote in his 1819 book, Travels in the Interior of America, Bradbury reported the famous story of Colter’s Run.
Colter came to St. Louis in May, 1810, in a small canoe, from the headwaters of the Missouri, a distance of three thousand miles. I saw him on his arrival, and received from him an account of his adventures. One of these, from its singularity, I shall relate.
He trapped in company with a hunter named Potts. Aware of the hostility of the Blackfeet Indians, they set their traps at night, and took them up early in the morning, remaining concealed during the day.
They were examining their traps early one morning, in a creek about six miles from that branch of the Missouri called Jefferson’s Fork, and were ascending in a canoe. Suddenly they heard a great noise, resembling the trampling of animals. But they could not ascertain the cause, as the high, perpendicular banks on each side of the river impeded their view.
Colter immediately pronounced it to be occasioned by Indians, and advised an instant retreat. Potts accused him of cowardice and insisted that the noise was caused by buffaloes. In a few minutes their doubts were removed by a party of Indians making their appearance on both sides of the creek—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. At the moment of its touching, an Indian seized the rifle belonging to Potts. But Colter, who is a remarkably strong man, immediately retook it. He 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 leveled his rifle at an Indian, and shot him dead on the spot. This conduct may appear to have been an act of madness, but it was doubtless the effect of sudden and sound reasoning. For if taken alive, Potts must have expected to be tortured to death, according to their custom. He was instantly pierced with arrows so numerous that, to use the language of Colter, “be was made a 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.
Colter, who had been some time amongst the Crow Indians, had in a considerable degree acquired the Blackfoot language. He was also well acquainted with Indian customs. He knew that he had now to run for his life, with the dreadful odds of five or six hundred against him. Therefore he cunningly replied that he was a very bad runner—although he was considered by the hunters as remarkably swift.
The chief now commanded the party to remain stationary, and 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. Urged with the hope of preserving life, he ran with a speed at which he was himself surprised.
He proceeded towards the Jefferson Fork, having to traverse a plain six miles in breadth, abounding with prickly pear, on which he was every instant treading with his naked feet. He ran nearly halfway across the plain before he ventured to look over his shoulder.
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.
A faint gleam of hope now cheered the heart of Colter. He derived confidence from the belief that escape was within the bounds of possibility. But that confidence was nearly fatal to him. He had exerted himself to such a degree that the blood gushed from his nostrils—and almost covered the forepart of his body.
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, and perhaps of the bloody appearance of Colter, 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.
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 the 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.” They were frequently on the raft during the day, and were seen through the chinks by Colter, who was congratulating himself on his escape, until the idea arose that they might set the raft on fire.
In horrible suspense he remained until night, when hearing no more of the Indians, he dived under the raft, and swam silently down the river to a considerable distance. He landed and traveled all 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. He had no means of killing game—although he saw abundance around him. He was at least seven days’ journey from the nearest Fort.
These were circumstances under which almost any man but an American hunter would have despaired. He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on a root much esteemed by the Indians.
— Story adapted from pages 17-21 (footnote) in John Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1911 (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1817).
— Illustration, “Old Bill Williams,” Wikipedia Commons.
— You might also enjoy “Jim Bridger’s Descriptions of Yellowstone.”
— Here’s another version of Colter’s Run.