The Adventures of Colter
Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re naked and everyone’s laughing at you? Well, for mountain man John Colter, the bad dream was real. The hot summer sun beat down on his unmentionable places as a crowd of Blackfoot Indians made crude gestures and taunted him. They had already killed his partner and now a group of leaders were deciding his fate. Suddenly an elder grabbed Colter’s arm and led him away. ‘Go!’ said the elder pointing at the prairie, “Run!’ Confused, Colter staggered forward and then glanced back. The Blackfoot warriors were stretching, limbering up. That’s when Colter realized–he was running for his life.
John Colter’s Unfortunate Experience
Late in the summer of 1809, John Colter and John Potts left Fort Raymond, also known as Fort Manuel and ventured into Blackfoot Territory near where the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison Rivers meet. Today, this historical area is known as Three Forks, Montana. The two men were skilled hunters and planned to trap beavers. They had met a few years before when they had been members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Colter and Potts knew that poaching in Blackfoot territory was extremely dangerous, but a good price was being paid for beaver pelts. So they tried to keep their presence on the down low. They set out beaver traps at night, checked them early in the morning, hid and slept during midday.
The two men were each paddling a small dugout canoe up the Jefferson river when they heard a stamping noise. Colter worried that it was Blackfoot Indians and wanted to turn back, but Potts insisted the noise was buffalo and accused Colter of cowardice. For the rest of Potts’ very short miserable life, he wished he had listened to Colter.
Captured by the Blackfeet
They paddled around a bend to see that the banks of the river were lined with around 800 Blackfoot, some on horses. The tribe gestured for them to come ashore. Colter thought it was best to comply; trying to escape was futile. He furtively cut the lines for his beaver trapping gear, letting it drift to the shallow bottom of the river. He told Potts that he could retrieve it later.
Colter went ashore. He spoke rudimentary Blackfoot and also a little Crow, the language of a neighboring Indian tribe. He thought that he and Potts were just going to be robbed. The Blackfoot took Colter’s gear-his rifle, flint, powderhorn and his knife. Then they made him strip. Off came John Colter’s shirt, belt, pants and boots. Soon he was as naked as the day he was born.
Meanwhile, Potts stood in his canoe, longrifle in hand, watching the proceedings and refusing to come ashore. The Blackfeet communicated to Colter that he should tell Potts to come ashore. Colter told Potts, but Potts refused saying he might as well lose his life rather than be stripped and robbed like Colter. Prophetic words.
Separated from his partner
An archer on the shore shot Potts in the hip with an arrow. Potts fell to the bottom of his boat. Colter asked if he was hurt. Potts said yes, he was hurt, too injured to escape. As he rose up from the bottom of his canoe, poised for action, Potts told Colter to get away if he could, he was going to shoot at least one Indian. Potts fired, killing one of the Blackfoot.
All hell broke loose. A volley of arrows were unleashed at Potts and in seconds, he was dead, riddled with arrows and bullets. Blackfoot jumped in the river and dragged Potts’ boat to shore. Raging, they tossed his corpse on the ground. They mutilated his body, hacking it apart with tomahawks and knives. Colter stood by, head turned away so he didn’t see. Some accounts claim that the Blackfoot threw Potts’ entails into Colter’s face to goad him. Either way, soon all that was left of Potts was a bloody, pulpy mess on the ground.
An angry warrior came at Colter with a tomahawk, but his tribesmen grabbed him and held him back. A group of leaders and elders quickly convened to decide what to do with Colter. Meanwhile, Colter stood there in his birthday suit, being harassed by the mob. He was sweating, trying to keep a cool head while dreading what was going to happen next. Would the Blackfoot torture him before they killed him?
John Colter Escape
An elder left the council, came over to Colter, grabbed his arm and began to walk him away from the crowd. The elder pointed at the prairie. ‘Go! Go away!’ he told Colter in Crow. Colter walked a few steps forward on shaky legs; he thought the tribe was going to shoot him in the back. The Elder impatiently gestured and demanded Colter go faster. Colter walked a little faster, when he got maybe 100 yards away (300 feet, 91.44 meters), he glanced back to see that the young men of the tribe were stripping off their leggings and stretching. That’s when Colter understood–they were the hunters and he was the prey, he was running for his life.
His heart pounding, Colter took off, running as fast as he could. Seconds later, blood curdling war cries went up as the Blackfoot came chasing after Colter.
Colter was fleet of foot; he was in good shape and adrenaline coursed through his body. But every step was painful; the prairie was treacherous. Large swathes of prickly pear bush covered the ground. The tiny spikes from their stickers pierced the tender skin between Colter’s toes. Pebbles tripped him and also bit into his feet. Shrubs scratched and left welts on his calves as he charged through them.
Thankfully, Colter knew the area, even without a map, he was about 5 miles from the Madison river. If he could just make it there…
Colter ran and ran, not daring to look back. Startled birds flew up from the grass as he bolted past. He could hear war whoops and laughter carrying on the breeze. Also footsteps. He wasn’t sure if the Blackfoot were close on his tail or if it was just the imagination of his terrified mind.
Finally Colter couldn’t bear it any longer, he was out of breath. He had a stitch in his side. His nose had started to bleed from the extreme exertion. Slowing down, he looked back.
Colter had run perhaps three miles. Most of the hunters had lost steam and were distant specks on the prairie. However one graceful runner draped in a blanket and carrying a spear was far ahead of the rest of the pack, maybe around 100 yards (300 feet, 91.44 meters) behind Colter. The distance between them was just shy of an American football field.
So, did John survive?
Colter took off again. The Blackfoot hunter chased him for another mile, slowly gaining ground, getting closer and closer. Heart racing, lungs burning, ears ringing, Colter could run no more. He stopped and whirled around. Arms spread wide, panting, his feet shredded and his nose gushing blood, Colter pleaded for his life in Crow.
The exhausted warrior didn’t hear Colter or didn’t care. He ran closer and then lunged at Colter with his spear, but stumbled and fell, breaking his spear in two.
The tables were turned. Suddenly it was the Blackfoot warrior on the ground begging for mercy. Colter snatched up the half of the spear that had the sharp head and impaled the warrior, pinning him to the ground.
Colter worked the broken spear free from the dying man and stole his blanket. Buoyed by a fresh wave of energy, Colter turned and ran for the river which was about a mile away.
Colter gained a little extra time as the Blackfoot stopped to check on their fallen tribesman. The discovery of their comrade’s death sent the Indians into new paroxysms of rage and grief.
Saved by a beaver lodge
At the bank of the Madison River, Colter paused to catch his breath and scanned the area. Slightly downstream he noticed a huge beaver lodge with a mound of brush, sticks and river debris rising from the water. Colter plunged into the river; by golly it was cold! The water came from snowpack melting further up stream. At least it numbed his swollen, bloody feet.
Colter swam over to the beaver lodge and dived down to come up under the wall and enter it. Beavers are clever animals, good at construction. Their lodges are often multi-roomed and two-story, the interior made watertight by an intricate weave of twigs, grass and mud. Colter secreted himself on the dry second level of the lodge.
Just in time. The Blackfoot splashed into the river, searching for Colter. They stood atop the beaver mound, poked spears into it and argued about which way Colter went. Colter lay inches under then, scarcely breathing, worried that the hunters would fall through or set his hiding place on fire. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Instead the Blackfoot spread out to comb the area. Several men crossed to the opposite bank to look for him on the other side of the river. Colter stayed in his hiding place, terrified that they had left someone on watch. The main pack of hunters came back two hours later, angry, having seen neither hide nor hair of Colter on the far side of the river.
A sigh of relief!
Finally the Blackfoot left, returning to their tribe. A shivering Colter decided to play it safe and stayed put until dark. Then he left the beaver lodge, and swam many miles downstream. Colter emerged from the water, chilled to the bone. All he had was the sharp end of a broken spear and a sodden blanket. No food, no clothing and no gear. He was hundreds of miles from the nearest fort. Worse yet, an angry Blackfoot tribe was probably monitoring the nearby mountain pass. Sure, going through Bozeman Pass and following the Yellowstone River was the quickest route back to Fort Raymond. However, that route would take Colter through the heart of Blackfoot country.
The treacherous expedition back home
He didn’t want to chance it. Colter took a long detour which added probably 100 miles (160 km) to his journey, but it was far safer. Colter walked about 30 miles (48 km) east towards the Bridger Mountains. To get over the mountains, he climbed a near vertical peak. Hiking through the snow capped peaks at the top of the mountains was especially hard as he had only his lone blanket to stay warm. Once over the mountains, Colter walked across the Great Plains and then through Montana wilderness. He ate berries, bark and roots known as ‘prairie turnips’, dug up with his hands and the spear point.
Eleven days and some 300 miles later, Colter finally arrived back at Fort Raymond. He was naked, sunburned, covered in insect bites and emaciated. His feet were swollen and blistered. His eyes were glassy and his beard long and scraggly. Close companions didn’t even recognize him. Colter spent several weeks recuperating from his narrow escape and arduous expedition home.
Going back to Blackfoot territory
Later that winter, Colter, who was brave, foolish or insane or perhaps a bit of all three headed back into Blackfoot Territory. He wanted to retrieve his expensive beaver trapping gear which he had dropped in the river on that terrible summer’s day he ended up being hunted. Since it was the dead of winter, Colter figured he’d be okay, he thought that the Blackfoot would be hunkered down in their camps until spring.
Jon Colter’s travel through the Bozeman Pass and reached the Gallatin River. One evening, he was settling down to a nice meal of boiled buffalo meat by his small campfire when his sharp hunter’s ears detected the tell-tale sound of twigs snapping. Operating on instinct honed from years of living in the wilderness, Colter dove down atop his fire, extinguishing it. Muskets cracked and musket balls whined over Colter’s head as he lay in the darkness.
Finally, Colter had enough. He hastily packed up and went back to Fort Raymond, eventually outside Blackfoot territory. He headed east to buy a farm, settled down and got married to start a new life.
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