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John Colter


Kimberly Edwards


Trinity Academy Home School, Lake Bronson,Minnesota


Tied for 3rd Place

Kittson County Historical Society GenealogyEssay Contest


My family and I are planning a trip to Yellowstone NationalPark this coming August. This will be a special vacation because Yellowstonewas discovered by one of my ancestors. My great great great great greatuncle, John Colter, discovered Yellowstone during the winter of 1807.

John Colter was a Virginian who was born in 1775. Thefounder of the family in America was Micajah Coalter, who came to Virginiafrom Ireland about 1700, although he was actually of Scottish descent. Micajah's oldest son, Michael, changed the spelling of the name to Colter.

John Colter left Virginia when he was twenty-eight yearsold and came west. In October, of 1803, in Maysville, Kentucky, he enlistedas a private with the expedition of Lewis and Clark. The expedition gotunder way May 14, 1804.

Colter's character was that of a true American backwoodsman. He spent two years with the expedition as a hunter, shooting game to supplythe party with food. The records of the expedition show that John Colter,in one day, killed a buffalo, an elk, three deer, a wolf, five turkeys,a goose, and a beaver. Colter was very healthy and strong. His name neverappeared on the sick list during the whole trip.

In 1806, Colter left the expedition to join two other menwho were planning to trap animals along the rivers and streams of the MissouriValley. As a trapper, Colter dressed in colorful combinations of buckskinsuits, woolen blankets, capotes, fur caps, and fur-lined moccasins, andleggings. Many of his clothing ideas came from his contact with the Indiansof the area.

One encounter Colter had with the Blackfoot Indians, duringhis four years of trapping in the Rockies, almost ended in his death. Colterand his trapper friend, John Potts, were canoeing down the Jefferson Riverwhen they were surrounded by Indians. Potts aimed his rifle at the Indians,who immediately shot him full of arrows; Colter was captured alive. TheIndians argued about how to kill their prisoner. Colter had learned theBlackfoot language and understood that the Indians planned to use him asthe prey in a hunting game. Colter was led out to a grassy field and strippednaked. His captors told him to move about three hundred yards in frontof them, and then told him to begin running. The Indians began runningafter him. Colter was barefooted and the plains were covered with pricklypear cactus. Soon, his feet were torn and bloody. Colter was running forhis life. Soon, he was way out in front of all the Indians, except forone brave who was gaining on him. Colter had an idea. He stopped suddenlyin front of the Indian. This surprised the Indian so much that he stumbledand fell. Colter then picked up the Indians's spear and killed him withit. Then Colter continued running. He came to a river and hid himselfinside a beaver's dam. Colter lay freezing in the beaver's dam all dayand night. Finally, the Indians gave up the search. Seven days later,Colter crawled on his hands and knees into Lisa's Fort, a frontier tradingpost. The story of his survival was printed in several newspapers.

Sometime during the winter of 1807-1809, John Colter madea discovery that would also be considered important news. He was on a trappingexpedition and went looking for Indians with which to trade. He traveledsouthwest of the Big Horn River, and at Fort Manuel he went up Pryor's Forkfor fifty miles to Pryor's Gap. From there he crossed the Absaroka Mountains. He came to Clark's Fort and followed this stream to Dead Indian Creek. Turning south, he came to a stream that had a strong smell of sulfur. He names this stream Stinking Water River. Today, the stream is calledthe North Fork of the Shoshone River, near Cody, Wyoming.

Next, Colter came to an area with lots of hot springs andgeysers. This area became known as "Colter's Hell" and todayis a portion of Yellowstone National Park.

Colter left no written records of his journey through Yellowstone. He did tell Meriweather Clark about his discovery, and Clark drew a mapand recorded Colter's description of the area. Most history books siteJohn Colter as the discoverer of Yellowstone.

In 1810, Colter retired as an explorer and trapper. Hemarried a girl named Sally and settled in Missouri. In 1813, he came downwith a disease called jaundice, and he died in November of 1813. He wasburied near the Missouri River. His grave marker was destroyed when theMissouri Pacific Railroad laid track through the area.

Even though John Colter's gravestone was lost, he willalways be remembered as a famous explorer, trapper, and as the discovererof Yellowstone National Park. I'm proud that John Colter is one of my ancestors,and that his name is on my family tree.


Bakeless, John. Lewis and Clark

New York, New American Library. 1964


Burton, Harris. John Colter

Wyoming, Big Horn Book Company. 1977


Lavender, David. The Rockies

New York, Harper and Row. 1968


Neugerger, Richard. The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Chicago, Spencer Press. 1951


Personal correspondence of Mary Vance below:

Belleville, Kan

March 28, 1940


Dear Verna,

Was glad to hear from you it seems I can't forget thatWarren is gone its come to me so many times when I lay awake at night hewas too young to die should have lived and enjoyed the things they bothworked so hard to earn.

The farmers are planting oats and barley the wheat is inbad shape some is already gone it seems to me the farmers have more thantheir share of hard times its still dry here and so much cloudy weatherbut no moisture.

Well I will try to tell you something about the Coultersand Dunlaps. My father, Josiah Coulter, was born near Zanesville, OhioJuly 7, 1828 died October 19, 1933 near Redington, Nebraska. He had 2 brothers,John and Samuel and 5 sisters, Nancy, Mary, Jane, Susan and Sarah. My motherwas born near Zenie, Ohio June 17, 1833 and died near Westboro, MO. Shehad 3 brothers: Jackson, Warren and James and one sister, Isabell. Theyhad 9 children 6 boys: John, Samuel, Warren, Wilber, Charles and Stephenand 3 girls: Emma, Mary, Amanda.

My grandfather Dunlap died then my grandmother marriedthe second time a man by the name of Shahan. They had one girl named Mahala,the same name as her mother.

My first grandfathers name was Jackson Dunlap so you seeI had 3 grandfathers. I don't know anything about the last one only hislast name.

Now I will tell what little I know about the older setof Coulters. My grandfather Samuel Coulter was born near Wheeling, WestVirginia August 15, 1801 and died near Fresno, California 1873. Don't knowthe month or day. His first name was Samuel. Don't know much about mygrandmother Coulter only her last name before she was married was Hutchison. She died years before I was born. They tell me my grandfather Coulterhad a brother, John, that he was with the Lewis and Clark explorers thatdiscovered California when the rest came back he came as far as Montanathen explored the western states and trapped. He is the John Coulter thatdiscovered Yellowstone Park. My father had a brother, John, that went westand fought Indians. A man in Illinois was called to go but was afraid sohe gave my uncle John $900 to go in his place. He was wounded and senthome. Several years after that he got a pension."

Letter goes on with personal information.

n his place. He was wounded and senthome. Several years after that he got a pension."

Letter goes on with personal information.