Colter’s Run and other Tall Tales

John Colter Stone - Jackson Hole history

Barker-Ewing boatmen are world-class storytellers. Whether we’re driving you up to the launch site in our shiny new vans or guiding you down the Snake River right through the heart of Grand Teton National Park, we’re never at a loss for words. Geology, natural history, wildlife, western lore and regional politics – we’re experts on a wide variety of topics, and take pride in our ability to weave a compelling narrative. The Mountain Men who frequented Jackson Hole in days of yore were terrific storytellers themselves – and famous for their tall tales. Jim Bridger spun a story about a Petrified Forest in Yellowstone: seems that he saw petrified birds sitting in petrified trees singing petrified songs. And Jim Beckwourth claimed to be able to track antelope by their smell alone. But John Colter’s run is a ripping yarn that just may be the most famous tall tale of all.

Among the many Mountain Men who traveled through the greater Jackson Hole region, John Colter looms large. Colter first came west from Virginia as a member of the Corps of Discovery. When that expedition ended, Colter remained in Montana to trap beaver, and is credited as the first person of European descent to travel through Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. Meriwether Lewis’ 1814 map of the Lewis and Clark expedition shows what Colter described as his route through Wyoming, and in 1930 a farmer near Tetonia, Idaho, uncovered a rock carved in the shape of a head with “John Colter” inscribed on one side and “1808” on the other. Whether Colter was the first white man to set eyes on the Tetons remains unknowable – but he earned lasting fame in Western lore for endurance running, before that was even a thing.

Artwork showing John Colter and Yellowstone Geysers
Artwork: John Colter at Yellowstone geyser.

Colter’s Run is a story of survival against great odds. It is a story that I have read, heard, and repeated many times in my profession as a Barker-Ewing boatman. And just last summer, while telling this story for the umpteenth time, it struck me that it was quite possibly fabricated.

John Colter told the story of his run to two different individuals in the years before his death from jaundice at the age of 38. The basic story has Colter and his partner, John Potts, working trap lines on the Jefferson River in Montana. Potts is killed by Blackfeet warriors. They capture Colter, then release him unarmed and naked nearly 200 miles from the nearest trading post on the Little Big Horn River. Soon after striking out on his own, Colter finds that he is being pursued by an armed band of Blackfeet. In one telling, Colter escapes these warriors by outrunning them, and then swimming into a beaver lodge that he finds along the Jefferson River. In another, he hides in a logjam. In either case, survival is doubtful. No self-respecting beaver would allow an intruder into his lodge, and would defend it fiercely. And hours of exposure to the cold, flowing water of the Jefferson would most likely result in fatal hypothermia. This is assuming that we believe that a stark-naked fur trapper could outrun the Blackfeet’s best and brightest. Which I don’t.

While researching for this blog, I came across a brief mention of Colter’s story in a letter written by Henry B. Crawford, Curator of History at the Museum of Texas Tech University. Crawford writes of a centuries-old Blackfeet oral tradition that says Colter was stripped and released as a warning to others who might have designs on Blackfeet trapping grounds. If this was the case, then Colter might have felt the need to concoct a more heroic version of his experience with them– and he had plenty of time to come up with one during his 200-mile walk back to the trading post.

So even if we accept that the story of Colter’s Run is an exaggeration, it’s still a great tale of survival. Colter did manage to travel more than 200 miles from the Jefferson River to the Little Big Horn, crossing several mountain ranges and rivers, through hostile territory, and with very little in the way of supplies. And that’s a story that needs no embellishment.

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