The Mountain Man Who Outran His Captors Barefoot and Naked
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can probably run farther and faster than you think — even if warriors aren’t chasing you.
By Molly Fosco
The wind-swept plains stretched out before him, seemingly endless as he ran faster than he’d ever run before. Buck naked, cactus spines piercing the soles of his feet, John Colter was running for his life. His lungs burned, his heart pounded and every fiber in his body cried out in utter exhaustion, but fear spurred him on, mile after terrifying mile. As the Jefferson River came into view, Colter glanced behind him and saw that he had managed to lose all but one of his Blackfoot pursuers. The lone warrior was gaining speed, spear at the ready. Colter couldn’t outrun him. He would have to turn and fight.
Despite his predicament, the frontier-hardened Colter must have liked his chances. Four years earlier, in 1804, the young Virginian had enlisted as a private with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which set off from St. Louis to evaluate the enormous swath of real estate the U.S. had recently acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase. After reaching the Pacific in November 1805, the party wintered at the mouth of the Columbia River and then headed back east.
Colter took off across the rock-strewn, cactus-spiked prairie, a band of spear-brandishing Blackfeet in hot pursuit.
In August 1806, in what is now eastern Montana, Colter and fellow private John Potts received permission from Lt. William Clark to cash out early and join a pair of American fur trappers who’d already spent two years in the wilderness. “[W]hen the expedition set off downstream,” writes Stephen E. Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, “Colter turned back upstream, back to the wilderness, back to the mountains, on his way into the history books as America’s first mountain man and the discoverer of [what became] Yellowstone National Park.”
Brave, foolish or a bit of both, the four Americans were in Blackfoot territory, a tribe known for its hostility to white intruders. Frontier relations weren’t helped when, during the homeward leg of the expedition, Capt. Meriwether Lewis had killed a Blackfoot warrior trying to steal his men’s horses. “He also joined up with the Flathead Indians, and the Flatheads and Blackfeet didn’t like each other,” says Diana Ahmad, distinguished professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “That made him an enemy of the Blackfeet.”
Two years later, Colter and Potts were experienced trappers who carefully studied the daily rhythms of their often perilous territory. They only set traps at night, harvested beaver pelts in the early morning and kept out of sight during the day. One autumn morning, as the sun was just beginning to peek over the western yellow pines, the two men were inspecting traplines near the Three Forks of the Missouri, the headwaters of the great river near present-day Bozeman, Montana, when they were surrounded by hundreds of Blackfoot warriors.
Colter surrendered and tried to parley his way out of trouble. Potts lost his composure, shot a Blackfoot and was killed. But rather than kill Colter right away, the Blackfeet decided to have sport with him first. They took him back to camp, stripped him and asked if he was a good runner. He understood enough to reply that he was a very poor runner. The warriors released him, and Colter took off across the rock-strewn, cactus-spiked prairie, a band of spear-brandishing Blackfeet in hot pursuit.
Naturally, Colter had lied. He ran astonishingly fast, nonstop, for 6 miles, bound for the Jefferson River, one of the Three Forks. As he neared its banks, he stopped, spun around and spread his arms wide. The lone pursuing warrior, utterly surprised, tried to stop but instead collapsed from exhaustion, snapping his spear in half as he fell to the ground. Colter grabbed the business end of the spear and drove it into his enemy’s chest.
The ordeal wasn’t over yet. Colter hurried to the river, where he hid in a pile of driftwood. A mounted band of Blackfeet rode up and thrashed in the riverbank brush for hours before eventually giving up. Even after Colter’s pursuers rode away, his troubles were far from over. He was hundreds of miles from the nearest trading post, naked, with no weapon and bloodied feet.
By some miracle, Colter mustered the strength to go on, traveling 11 days and covering more than 200 miles to reach the trading post of fellow mountain man Manuel Lisa at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers, east of present-day Billings, Montana. He arrived starving and exhausted, with his skin burned raw from the sun, but very much alive.
Colter pulled through this ordeal to live only another five years. In 1812, when the U.S. and Great Britain went to war, Colter enlisted to fight under Nathan Boone, the youngest son of frontiersman Daniel Boone. It wasn’t warfare that did him in but jaundice, in 1813. Colter had survived frontier hardships, Blackfoot spears and a grueling trek on shredded feet, but he couldn’t outrun a disease.