“Mountain Man,” by John Phelps

by Bob Bahr

In my research for a book on visual art in the Wind River Mountains, I am coming across many compelling tales of Wyoming and its early explorers.

The story known as Colter’s Run has been told many times since 1809, when the actual events transpired. Some versions glorify John Colter, some offer apologies for the behavior of John Potts, some embrace clear historical inaccuracies, and many of the rest happily adopt the beloved skill early trappers and mountain men had to embellish the truth. Here, culled from several historical sources, is a version that honors all of those approaches, brought together for the sake of the tale–and what a tale it is.

John Colter and John Potts knew each other from their shared time with the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. In 1808, they fell in together as partners, seeking out trade agreements with Native American nations on behalf of Fort Raymond’s trapping trade, primarily dealing with the Flatheads and Crows. In 1809, Potts and Colter were setting traps on the Jefferson River, which is located in Montana west of Bozeman, northwest of Yellowstone National Park. They knew the area was used by Blackfeet, who had a lethal aversion to white men since a member of Lewis and Clark’s party killed a Blackfeet brave. Colter and Potts moved along the Jefferson River as stealthily as possible. But not stealthily enough. They were caught by as many as 800 Blackfeet, who lined the shore and demanded that the two land their canoe. Colter believed the Blackfeet were simply going to relieve them of their possessions. Potts was having none of it. Accounts vary at this point. We’ll be generous and embrace the most flattering to Potts.

Colter waded ashore, and the Blackfeet stripped him. Potts refused to follow, and an arrow found its way into his leg. “Are you hurt?” Colter asked. “Yes, too much hurt to escape; if you can get away, do so,” replied Potts. “I will kill at least one of them.” And indeed, he took a Pott-shot at a brave, killing him, and was immediately “riddled with arrows.” According to one account, the Blackfeet then dragged him ashore, hacked Potts to pieces with hatchets and knives, and threw his entrails, heart, lungs, etc in Colter’s face. The relatives of the murdered Blackfeet were “furious with rage and struggled, tomahawk in hand, to reach Colter, while others held them back.” Colter was brought in front of a chief, who asked him if he were a fast runner. Colter lied and said no. The chief indicated that he was to run.

According to one account, the chief merely said “Go—go away.” Colter started walking, but when he saw the braves removing their blankets, leggings, etc, he knew it was a race. “He ran with all the speed that nature, excited to the utmost, could give; fear and hope lent a supernatural vigor to his limbs and the rapidity of his flight astonished himself,” the account says. He ran five miles through rough country, stepping on prickly pear cactus and rocks, pushing himself so hard that his nose began to bleed from the exertion. Most of the braves were left behind, but one was gaining on him. When the brave was within 60 feet, Colter, in desperation, stopped and turned toward the Blackfeet, raising his arms. The move surprised the brave (and perhaps Colter’s bloody countenance did, too), and he quickly started to throw his spear at Colter. But he stumbled forward while doing so, catching the spear in the ground and falling, in the process breaking the shaft of the spear. Colter quickly picked up the short end with the point and “pinned him to the ground.” And he ran on.

Colter came to the Madison River and jumped in, looking for cover. He spied a beaver lodge and swam under it to take refuge. The rest of the braves soon arrived, howling in fury, and searched for him, at times standing on the dam and visible to Colter above, through the sticks.

When night came, the Blackfeet gave up the search, and Colter swam down the river a ways. “Fearing that the Indians might have guarded the pass, which was the only outlet from the valley, and to avoid the danger of surprise, Colter ascended the almost perpendicular mountain before him, the tops and sides covered by perpetual snow. He had no weapon, food, or clothes—just a blanket he had taken from the fallen Blackfeet. By morning he had reached the top. It was 300 miles to the nearest fort. He had to endure the sun, but made it after traveling 11 days to Ft. Manuel. He survived on psoralea esculenta, commonly known as breadroot or the prairie turnip. Wikipedia describes it thusly: As a food, the prairie turnip has been described variously as a “delicacy,” “tolerably good eating,” or “tasteless and insipid.” The Indian’s use of it as food is described as follows: “they eat it uncooked, or they boil it, or roast it in the embers, or dry it, and crush it to powder and make soup of it. Large quantities are stored in buffalo skin bags for winter use. A sort of pudding made of the flour of the roots and the maseskatomina (saskatoon) berry is very palatable and a favorite dish.”

In 1810 Colter turned his back on the Western wilderness and returned to St. Louis, where he married and bought a farm. He fought in the War of 1812 and died of jaundice in 1813. Ω