Was John Colter the First White Man to Travel Through Yellowstone?
History remembers most legendary explorers for what they discovered, documented, and mapped, not for what they might have stumbled across on their wanderings.
But John Colter’s name endures for precisely that reason: He might have been the first white man to travel through the Jackson Hole valley and the steaming, bubbling, erupting landscape that is now Yellowstone National Park. But because he left no written account of his travels during his fateful journey between southern Montana and Wyoming during the winter of 1807-08, his exact route remains one of pioneer history’s most-debated questions.
What’s certain is Colter was a skilled mountain man and explorer who journeyed to the Pacific with the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1803 to 1806. And historians agree that Colter set out from a fur-trading fort at the mouth of the Big Horn River in 1807. After that, things get hazy.
He made his way south to present-day Cody, Wyo., where his description of several geothermal features there (now less active) earned the site the name “Colter’s Hell.” Then he struck out to the northwest.
“About 40 percent of historians think Colter never entered [Yellowstone], and 60 percent think he did,” says Yellowstone National Park Historian Lee Whittlesey.
Some experts believe Colter traveled over Togwotee Pass, south of the park. Others trace his route across the northern part of the Jackson Hole valley, over Teton Pass, up the western shore of Yellowstone Lake, and finally back to Montana.
“The best source we have is a map from William Clark that shows the trail Colter took,” says Clayton Caden, director of research and archives at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.“
One description Clark wrote of the route really sounds like Jackson Lake and Yellowstone Lake. But that same description of Jackson Hole has the river running east to west, and the Snake runs north to south.” Could Clark’s map be accurate, minus a few historical typos? Or could the route on the document, published in 1814—six years after Colter’s journey, and based on his memory—pose more questions than it answers?
Is the Colter Stone a Hoax?
One major clue emerged from an Idaho field in 1933, when a farmer outside of Tetonia dug up an intriguing artifact: a piece of rhyolite crudely carved in the shape of a human head, with the words “John Colter” scrawled on one side and “1808” on the other. The location of the so-called Colter Stone would suggest that Colter did travel via the Teton Pass route into Yellowstone—if it really is a relic of the journey. “Many believe it’s a hoax,” says Caden. Whittlesey disagrees: “Did he leave the Colter Stone? I personally believe that he did,” pointing out that the farmer who discovered the stone had never heard of Colter, making a hoax unlikely. Without further evidence, the Colter Stone only deepens the mystery surrounding this legendary explorer’s uncharted journey.
The Legend of John Colter's Escape
John Colter earned a reputation for his speed as a runner and having resourcefulness in the face of danger. The legend of "John Colter's Escape" was featured on a news reel with the following plot:
While John was trapping in what is now Montana, he was captured by a marauding band of Blackfeet, who gave him a chance for his life by running the gauntlet in a rather singular way. He was stripped of his clothes, set loose, and the Indians were ordered to pursue him until he was worn down. The crafty Colter led them at such a swift pace that when the strongest runner was so far ahead that his fellow men were out sight, he turned, tripped the Indian, and finished him with his own spear. Then he took to the water and by hiding like a beaver beneath a driftwood raft, escaped.
This legend is often reenacted at Mountain Man Rendezvous event as "John Colter's Run." It also inspired a movie, "The Naked Prey" although the location was reset in Africa. Several film and TV shows have been inspired by or reference the famous run, including TV's Cheers and Mad Men, film's Apocalypto by Mel Gibson and Jeremiah Johnson by Robert Redford.
See Through John Colter's Eyes
Get closer... Pause at 8,432-foot Teton Pass as you cruise between the Teton Valley and Jackson Hole on WY 22; might John Colter have stopped for the same view more than 200 years ago?