Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Naked Run

If there is a king of explorers, who would it be?

Let me tell you about the greatest explorer who ever lived. Everyone knows of Livingston, Shakleton, Lewis & Clark, Amundsen, Powell, Cook, and many others. But, have you ever heard of Colter? How about Colter’s Hell? The sad thing is that this great man is almost lost to history. There is no biography, no sweeping historical account, no long written legacy; and yet his exploration is unparalleled in US history. No explorer covered what he covered and knew what he knew - none, but one thing lifts him above the others – he saw it all before long before anyone.

Lewis & Clark are heralded as the greatest of the American explorers, and rightfully so; however, upon their return neither ever explored again. Lewis was mysteriously murdered on horse back and drunk having squandered his fame and fortune never really accomplishing much of anything substantive. He barely managed to publish his famous journal. Their personal d̩nouement was recrossing the Mississippi from west to east Рthe remainder was almost meaningless and insignificant.

Of importance though is that Colter was with Lewis & Clark on the voyage of discovery, but he did not return across the Mississippi. In what I believe to be the single most brazen act of exploration he; instead of collecting his pay, and returning to the accolades of a mesmerized society, in August 1806, at the Mandan Villages, turned back and headed west back again into the unknown. This is an extraordinary act. Colter had just spent three years on one of the most intense and dangerous explorations ever made only to turn around and go straight back.

He left with two other trappers (read explorers), one of the first groups to go up the Missouri. He wintered with them (one only lasting six weeks) and then the remaining trapper headed back down the Missouri too. Colter by him self, headed into the unknown and then he to headed back down the Missouri only to run into Manuel Lisa's first expedition to the upper Missouri, and his old comrades George Drouillard, Jean-Baptiste Lepage, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor. Once again, Colter turned his back on returning to the home he had left in 1803, now becoming a free trapper for Lisa. Soon joined by Colter's former partner, Forrest Hancock, these men built Fort Raymond on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Bighorn. Lisa sent four men out during the winter of 1807-1808 to acquaint area Indians with his new post: experienced mountain man Edward Rose, and Lewis and Clark Expedition veterans Peter Weiser, George Drouillard, and John Colter.

Colter wandered about, was wounded in an Indian battle and did a number of things before his greatest “walk”. We know of his route only from Clark’s 1814 map. But Clark met with Colter so there was direct consultation; thus, the map and Colter’s route is taken as fact by most. The only difficulty is in believing Colter did the route by himself. During the winter of 1807-1808 he explored Jackson’s Hole, traveled north to Yellowstone and first saw Yellowstone Lake (later Eustus Lake), and then back out to the Bighorn River.

One of Colter’s most famous exploits is a 300 mile naked journey after being captured by the Blackfeet and given a “head start”. He out ran all of the young braves except for one and that one he killed with the braves own lance. The story goes like this:

The Blackfeet stripped Colter and discussed something in their language that he did not understand, and then motioned for him to leave. He began walking away, expecting to be shot. When he saw several young Blackfeet men preparing themselves for a race, he realized that he was being given a chance to run, which he did. Within a few miles his nose was bleeding and his strength failing, and only one Blackfeet was behind, gaining on Colter with an upraised lance. Surprising his attacker, Colter suddenly stopped. The Indian threw his lance, breaking it, but simultaneously tripped and fell. Colter killed him with the spear point.

Catching his second wind, Colter beat the Blackfeet to the Madison River, five or six miles from where he had started. He dived into the icy snowmelt water and hid under a raft of driftwood, where he held his nose above water while the Blackfeet searched for him, even walking on the wood overhead, as Colter related the story. Long after they moved away--and not until darkness fell--did Colter, in his own account, emerge and continue traveling east.

He ate seeds and berries, dug up roots with the spear head, drank from the Yellowstone River, and moved only by night. He made his way back (300 miles) to Fort Raymond in eleven days. (A previous trip of three weeks) Mountain man Thomas James described the apparition that staggered into the fort: "His beard was long, his face and whole body were thin and emaciated by hunger, and his limbs and feet swollen and sore." The men had to ask his identity. The quotation from James reads: "The company at the fort did not recognize him...until he had made himself known."

Colter spent several more years in the Wyoming area and continued to explore. He knew Jim Bridger, but left the mountains in 1810 having explored since 1804! Six years of exploration. All most all of his comrades lay buried in the mountains, yet he walked back east and finally recrossed the Mississippi from west to east.

Colter soon would have learned of Lewis's death the previous year. He is known to have visited Clark and given him information about his own Wyoming travels that Clark incorporated into his 1814 map. Colter had to sue the estate of Meriwether Lewis for the expedition pay that he never had collected, and settled for a lesser amount to end the suit in a few months. Now about thirty-five years old, Colter also married. He and his wife Sarah, called Sally, had a son they named Hiram. They settled at La Charette, where a neighbor was Daniel Boone. (Another hero of mine) In March of 1812, when Boone's son Nathan helped create the Mounted Rangers, a mobile frontier police force, Colter signed on. But he died of an unspecified illness on May 7. The end of one of the most amazing adventures of all time – six years on the spear-tip of American history. One of the first 10 men to see the Pacific Ocean, the discover of the Tetons and the first to describe Yellowstone, a survivor of many Indian battles, a six-foot giant of a man.

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