The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. — Robert Conquest

Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin




John Colter's Race for Lif e
(1808)


The Trapper and the Blackfeet


In all the planning for possession of the country north and west of the Ohio River the Indians were far out-stripped by the white men. By the treaty of peace with England, in 1783, at the close of the Revolution, the United States obtained the lands west to the Mississippi River. When beginning in 1805 the Shawnee Prophet, or Open Door, tried to league the red people together, the Long Knife nation of the Thirteen Fires had extended clear to the Rocky Mountains. There was no stopping them. In the spring of 1803 President Thomas Jefferson, for the United States, had succeeded in buying the great Louisiana Territory from France. This Province of Louisiana covered from the Mississippi to the summits of the Rocky Mountains, and from Texas to Canada.

The messengers sent out by Open Door traveled even to the Blackfeet Indians of present Montana; but messengers sent out by President Jefferson had traveled farther. Starting from near St. Louis, in June, 1804, they had carried the new flag and the new peace word clear up the Missouri River, through Sioux country, through Blackfoot country and through Snake country, and had explored on to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River in present Washington. They had beaten the Open Door by several years.

These messengers of the United States were true Long Knives: young Captain Meriwether Lewis of Virginia and Lieutenant William Clark, his friend and a brother of the famed General George Rogers Clark, of Kentucky. They were to report upon the nature of the northern Louisiana Purchase, talk friendship with the strange Indians, and find a way by water across the Oregon Country beyond, to the mouth of the Columbia.

They took a company of thirty-one men enlisted as soldiers and boatmen and interpreters. Among them there were nine of the Kentucky Long Hunters. It is said that Lewis Wetzel joined, but he dropped out. John Colter, of Maysville on the Ohio River at the mouth of Limestone Creek, opposite West Virginia, was another. He went through.

Ten years before, Daniel Boone had moved west, into Louisiana Province while it was owned by Spain. He had settled in central Missouri, on the Missouri River above St. Louis; wanted "elbow room," he said —and the Spanish governor gave him eight thousand five hundred acres of land. Colonel Boone the Big Turtle was the first of the American dead-shots in the new West. When the Lewis and Clark men toiled upriver here he still was, living among the French in the very last white settlement.

He was not to be alone long. Many another Kentuckian and Carolinan and Tennesseean and Virginian had been thinking of a try at Boone's latest hunting grounds; they remembered that he had made a good choice when he picked Kentucky: and now that the country yonder was being opened by Americans for Americans they pressed after Lewis and Clark—their own kind. There were furs to be found, under American protection, and sold at St. Louis, an American city.

So when in the summer of 1806 the Lewis and Clark men were on the down-river trail, bound for St. Louis again, on the Missouri below the mouth of the Yellowstone River away up in North Dakota they met two American trappers, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, hailing last from Illinois.

John Colter, of the nine Kentuckians, thought that this was a good chance for him. The two free-trappers had been in here for two years—had set out right on the heels of the exploring party; they had caught many beaver and were doing well. They turned back, for fifty miles, with the company. On the way down John Colter arranged to become their partner. Captain Lewis gave him his discharge; and instead of going home he stayed, to be a trapper.

This land of high bare plains and snow-tipped, rock-ribbed, pine-clad mountains was very different from the forests of the Ohio region; but he had learned a great deal during his two years' trip. He was no greenhorn. He could take care of himself—he had been farther than Hancock and Dickson, felt no more fear of the Western Indians than he did of the Eastern Indians. After all, an Indian was an Indian, although these plains Indians like the Sioux and Blackfeet numbered thousands and seemed to think themselves much better than the white man.

In the fall his partners went "out," to take their furs to St. Louis. He remained in, and spent the winter alone, up the Yellowstone River of Montana, which was Blackfoot country. Captain Lewis had had trouble with the Blackfeet. They had tried to rob him, and two had been killed. But the Blackfoot head chief announced that this had served his young men right, and that the other Blackfeet bore the Americans no ill will.

Therefore Trapper Colter passed the winter in peace. The Crows, who also claimed the Yellowstone, did not molest him, either. In the spring he was taking the lone trail for St. Louis, when he met a company of American and French fur-hunters under Manuel Lisa, a swarthy Spaniard. They were coming in to build a trading post among the Blackfeet or Crows.

Trapper Colter had reached the mouth of the Platte River, in Nebraska—was almost "home," to the States, after an absence of three years; but he cared little. Trader Lisa wished him to be their scout to the Yellowstone and help them with the Indians; so he promptly turned around and took the back trail. He loved the trapper's life.

They built the post, named Manuel's Fort, beside the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Big Horn River in southeastern Montana. Trader Lisa found out that the Blackfeet were friendly; but their trade was not enough for him. He coveted the furs of the Crows and other Indians. John Colter was the man to carry the word that a trading post had been "brought" to the Yellowstone, and that all Indians were invited to visit it. He set out with the news.

This part of the Yellowstone was really Crow country; they ranged in southern Montana, the Blackfeet ranged in northern Montana, but they fought each other whenever they met in south or north, or in the mountains west. The Blackfeet were the stronger; they were eating the Crows, year after year. Trader Lisa should have known better than to invite them both to trade with him.

John Colter shouldered a pack of thirty pounds weight, containing presents, and with his rifle and ammunition started to hunt the Crows in the southwest. He paddled his canoe up the Big Horn into northern Wyoming, and finally discovered the Crows in their summer quarters of the Wind River Valley, to the westward.

With them he traveled westward still, across the Wind River Mountains and the Teton Mountains into northeastern Idaho. For the first time the eyes of a white American saw this wild and grandly beautiful scenery of a hunter's paradise.

He had traveled by canoe and foot and horse about five hundred miles. Here he met the Flathead Indians, with whom he had made friends when with Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clark. Here he met the Blackfeet, too—fifteen hundred of them on a horse-stealing expedition. But he met them in battle. He was with the Crows and Flatheads, and of course had to aid his own party. It was do or die, because the Crows and Flatheads numbered only eight hundred.

He showed them how a white man could fight; he was wounded in the leg, the Blackfeet were driven off, they had seen him as a leader in the ranks of their enemies, they refused to forget, and ever after that they were the sworn foes of the whites.

There was no use now in his trying to talk with the Blackfeet. If they caught him they'd kill him. He'd better avoid them. The Crows were afraid to guide him far, and he struck out alone for Manuel's Fort, and made his own trail. Possibly the Crows had told him of a "big-medicine" country—a region of bad and good spirits, lying between him and the Big Horn, and into which few Indians ventured. It promised to be a safe trail, he was not afraid of "spirits"—preferred "spirits" to the Blackfeet; he struck out, and plunged into the wonders of the Yellowstone Park.

He arrived at Lisa's Fort (which was another of its names) without trouble, and full of stories about hot geysers and boiling mud and strange colorings. For many years nobody believed his stories; they were only "trapper yarns;" but there he had been, in this year 1807, and had had the place all to himself.

Trader Lisa was not satisfied. He wished furs, and more furs; he wished the Blackfeet furs, as well as the Crow and Flathead and Sioux furs. In the spring of the next year he sent Trapper Colter out again, to seek the Blackfeet, make peace with them, and urge them to come in Fort Manuel. By this time they probably would have forgiven the one white man who had been in a tight fix and obliged to fight whether or no.

John Potts agreed to go with John Colter. They were comrades of old. John Potts was another of the Lewis and Clark men: had served as a soldier enlisted at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, by Captain Lewis himself. He had joined the Trader Lisa company at St. Louis, a year ago, and on the way upriver had been glad to meet John Colter. It was a reunion.

Now from Lisa's Fort they paddled up the Yellowstone again, down which they had come in 1806 with Lieutenant Clark, and crossed westward over the divide between the Yellowstone and the heads of the Missouri. This was the Three Forks country, of present southwestern Montana, where the Missouri split into three branches named by Captain Lewis the Madison, the Gallatin and the Jefferson. They knew it well; had they not worked hard here, when bound for the Columbia in the summer of 1805?

Likely enough they were not at all anxious to find the Blackfeet or to have the Blackfeet find them. The Blackfeet sometimes roamed here; so did the timid Snakes, descending from the mountains to hunt buffalo on the Missouri River plains in the east; so did the Crows. While spying around, they two built a canoe apiece and trapped beaver in the Jefferson River, over toward the mountains.

The beaver were as abundant as ever. To keep out of sight of Indians, they set their traps after dusk, ran them very early in the morning, and lay hidden all day. It certainly was not pleasant, to live like 'coons and owls, but so many furs were worth the trouble.

One early morning they were in their canoes, deep between the high banks, down toward the mouth of the river where it united with the Madison, when they heard a dull tramping in the valley.

"Harkee!" spoke John. "D'ye hear, Jack? That sounds like Injuns. We'd better drop our traps an' cache (hide) ourselves."

"Injuns nothin'!" John Potts laughed. "Them's buff'ler. Seems like every time the wind blows you're thinkin' Injuns. Can't you tell buff'ler from reds? Or are you gettin' skeered out?"

"Jest as you say, then," the other John replied. "But if anything happens, don't blame me. I've a notion we ought to climb up an' spy 'round."

"If they're Injuns, our heads would give us away. We'll keep where we are, snug under the banks, an' they'll pass us by. But those are buff'ler, I tell you."

They worked along, lifting their beaver traps. The dull tramping increased, as if the buffalo were about to cross the river. Suddenly, above them, on the edge of the east bank, there appeared dark figures, with blankets and feathered crowns and guns and bows.

"Blackfeet!" John Colter gasped. "Watch out. Stop paddling. Drop your traps." His own he let slide over the side of his canoe farthest from the Indians.

The Blackfeet instantly covered the two canoes with bended bows and leveled muskets. The whole bank was bristling with their fierce array, so that the narrow river seemed shadowed.

A chief called sternly, and gestured, bidding the two canoes to land where the bank had washed in a little cove.

"We're in for it," remarked John Colter. "Come on, and I'll talk with 'em."

"Not I," the other John growled. "Let's talk from here."

"That's pure folly." And knowing Indians better than his comrade did, John Colter paddled in with a few strokes.

One of the Blackfoot warriors seized his canoe at once; hands rudely hauled him out, and upon the bank, wrenched his gun from him and tore off all his clothes. It was an alarming welcome.

John Potts was still in his own canoe, in midstream.

The Indians again called to him, and the chief beckoned.

"Come ashore, or they'll kill you where you are," urged John Colter. There were eight hundred of them!

But Trapper Potts shook his head.

"I'll not. I might as well be killed here and now, as be robbed and beaten first. You—"

A bow twanged angrily. Down he fell, in the bottom of his canoe. John Colter could scarcely see, by reason of the dancing, shouting Blackfeet. Then he beard.

"Colter! They've got me! I'm wounded!"

"Bad hurt?"

Trapper Potts was standing, rifle in hand and an arrow jutting from his hip.

"Yes. I can't make off. Get away if you can. I meant to kill one at least."

He aimed and fired; shot a Blackfoot dead. That was his last act. The smoke had no more than cleared the muzzle of his gun, ere a hundred arrows and bullets "made a riddle of him." Thus he died, also; a brave no-surrender man.

Yelling furiously, the Blackfeet, in a jostling mob, rushed into the stream, pulled the canoe ashore, dragged the body out upon the bank, and hacked it to pieces. They threw the pieces into John Colter's face, the slain warrior's relatives fought to get at him with their tomahawks, while the other Blackfeet formed about him and thrust them aside.

It was a doubtful moment. The air quivered to threat and insult. Trapper Colter expected to be killed at once. His friend had sealed the doom of both of them; had destroyed the one chance, for if no blood had been shed the Blackfeet might only have robbed them and let them go.

The tumult gradually lessened. The chiefs squatted in a circle, and while all scowled at the prisoner a council was held. The only point to be discussed was, how should he die?

They appeared to have decided. The head chief arose, and stalking to John motioned to him to go farther out into the open.

"Go! Go away!" he ordered, in the Crow tongue. Evidently they recognized John Colter as the white man who had fought against them among the Crows. That made matters worse.

John guessed that they were using him for a practice target. As soon as he was out a little way, they would shoot at him—see how many times they could hit him before killing him. That would be great sport as well as good practice. He slowly walked, to the east, upon the open plain, expecting with every step to feel the first arrow or bullet. This was a nervous stroll for a naked man. He heartily wished that he never had seen the Crows, or John Potts either.

He was not moving fast enough to suit the Blackfeet. An old fellow commenced to shout at him, and motion for him to go faster. But he didn't wish to go faster; the ground was thickly grown to prickly-pear cactus, and he had to pick his path amidst the spines.

Then the old Indian scuttled after him, very impatient. Told him to go faster yet—hurry, hurry! Even gave him a shove, or two.

From about one hundred yards out he looked again, and saw that the younger warriors were casting off their blankets and leggins; were stripping as if for a race!

What? A race it was to be, with his scalp the prize? A wave of hope and determination surged into his throat, and his heart beat madly. After all, the Blackfeet were treating him like a man. He was one among eight hundred; they had given him a chance!

He drew long breath. He was in his prime, aged about thirty-five; was five feet ten inches in height, stout-limbed, broad chested—strongly built after the Daniel Boone type of hunter. And he was a swift runner; few men that he knew were his equal.

With a leap, he launched himself full-speed across the bare plain, aiming for the Madison River, five miles before. A burst of yells and whoops reached his ears.

He glanced behind and saw some one hundred young braves, naked, the most of them, to their breech-clouts, careering after with spears.

He had made good time in other races, but he never had run like this. His strength and stride astonished him. The ground fairly whizzed from under him, the wind whined in his ears, almost drowning the cries of the pursuit. He wasted no moments now in picking his way through the prickly-pears; had to step on them with his bare soles, whether or no; and he gathered the stinging spines as a pin-cushion gathers pins.

He wasted no moments, either, in looking back. He bent all his energy upon reaching the Madison River. Soon he had run a mile, without slackening; could hear no feet except his own, had felt no lunge of spear. He kept on for another mile, and had not dared to relax. His lungs were sore, his throat dry, his breath wheezed, and his eyes were dizzy. But he was half way to the Madison. Was he going to escape? He did not know.

The yells were fainter.

But what was that? Blood began to gush from his nose, choking him. He had burst a blood-vessel. It frightened him and weakened him, and he rather despaired. For the first time he glanced over his shoulder, to measure distance. Hurrah! He had dropped all the Blackfeet except one; but that one was over-hauling him, and was within the hundred yards: a tall, fast young warrior, with a spear in his right hand and his blanket streaming from his left arm and shoulder.

Exhausted, Trapper Colter about decided to give up. He had done his best. So he ran more slowly; and when he thought that the Indian was about to spear him he turned abruptly, and spread both his arms, in surrender, and gasped, in Crow language:

"Do not kill."

He took the Indian quite by surprise, for a gory, frightful sight he was. But the Indian's mind had been made up. He saw the scalp, his hard-won prize; and poising his spear in both hands he charged on, to lunge. He, too, was wellnigh all in, and stumbled as he tried to thrust. John managed to grab the spear near the head, and hold it off, and they swayed and tugged. The spear broke, and the Indian fell flat. Trapper Colter stabbed him with the point, snatched the blanket, and leaving him lying there was away again.

A tremendous yell echoed from the Indians who had been watching; but now filled with hope once more he ran, he said, "as if he had not run a mile." Ahorse and afoot the whole Blackfoot band were tearing after.

He reached the Madison in the lead. He had run his five miles, but he had not won his life. There was to be no mercy for him, now that he had killed a warrior. Would the Madison save him? Beyond, there was only another open stretch, to be crossed, and a high mountain to be climbed.

He did not know exactly what to do, as he crashed through the willows bordering the little river. Then he saw a very large beaver-house, like a small haystack rising ten feet above the water, in a dammed pond. He plunged for it, and commenced to swim. If 219) ?> he might manage to get into that beaver-house before he was sighted—! He had quick wit, did John Colter.

The water was some ten feet deep, at the house. He held his breath and took a deep, deep dive. Luck was with him, to reward him. He groped, near the bottom, and struck the entrance; got his head through, and his body, and wriggled on—perhaps to stick fast inside and drown! No! As he had wildly hoped, the house was of two stories and big enough for him. The second floor was high and dry, for the beavers to lie upon; and the hole up through it was wide enough so that he could support his shoulders and breathe. Here he panted and waited, in the darkness.

Presently he could hear the Blackfeet, plashing about, and talking. In a moment or so they were upon the beaver-house itself. Their moccasins crunched the brittle sticks and mud; they thrust with their spears, and seemed uncertain what to do, themselves.

Another fear thrilled him. Supposing they guessed that he was under them, and set the house on fire! It would burn; the fire would eat down, and he would be roasted or smothered. He listened intently, for the crackling; even fancied that he could smell the smoke; let himself down as far as he might, so as to dodge the spear points.

After a long, long time the voices and the plashing grew less, as the Blackfeet appeared to be giving up the search. Then they all collected again. Then they went away. Then they came back. Would they never quit? He was chilled stiff, soaked with the icy water.

But he hung on.

Finally silence reigned. They had gone; or hadn't they? Maybe they were hidden, near, waiting for him. He grimly waited, too. At last he could stand the place no more. By the blackness, and the feel of the air, night had arrived. He drew another breath, let go, and dived from under. He cautiously rose to the surface; all was darkness. So he swam upstream and landed on the east side.

He did not dare to linger, though. A mountain range enclosed the valley, and he had to make it before daylight. He traveled on as fast as possible, with his blistered feet and his sodden blanket and his spear-head, for thirty miles, to a pass that he knew of.

However, the Blackfeet doubtless were before him, to cut him off in the pass. There was nothing for him, but to climb the mountain here instead of taking to the regular trail. Up he climbed, in the dark, by such a steep route that he had to haul himself by grasping at the rocks and brush and branches. Soon he was into snow. And when, at dawn, he gained the crest of the ridge, he could go no farther. He might yet be seen, and captured.

He lay here all day, aching and shivering and starved, with his wet blanket wrapped around his naked shoulders; managed to chew on some sappy bark, and swallow some tender tips; but that was poor fare. At dusk he started down, to try for Manuel's Fort, northeast three hundred miles across the open plain again.

That was a terrible journey, for a man in his shape. He had nothing except his blanket and his spear-head; so he had to eat roots and bark. He found enough pommes blanches (white apples) or Indian turnips to keep him alive. They were starchy, and ought to be cooked, but he ate them raw.

When, on the eleventh day, he staggered into the fort, he was so thin and haggard in face and body, and his legs and feet were so puffed, that he scarcely looked like a man, and nobody recognized him. But he was a man indeed, and had outmatched the Blackfeet and the rigors of mountain and plain.

After all, the white American is a hard fighter to down.

While getting away from the Blackfeet, Trapper Colter had vowed that if he escaped this time he'd go straight to St. Louis. He had had enough. When he grew strong at Fort Lisa, he changed his mind; he thought he'd better stay through another season; go back for his beaver-traps, at any rate. First-class beaver-traps cost fifteen dollars apiece.

It took him until winter to grow strong. Then he set out alone, to find his traps in the Jefferson River. He hoped that the Blackfeet would be in their winter villages, and not ranging about.

Well, he crossed the same mountain, into the valley, and was in camp, at night, in the Three Forks country not far from where he had run his race—yes, was not far from the very beaver-house in which he had hidden, when while cooking his supper of buffalo-meat he heard the cracking of brush behind him. He pricked up his ears, and did not stir. But when he heard the sharp click of gun-locks, out there in the darkness, at one jump he had leaped over his fire and dived for safety.

A volley scattered the fire and spurted the sod under his flying feet. He had been none too prompt. Away he ran, as before, only this time he was better clothed. Again he climbed straight up the mountain; again he lay on top; and again he traveled by night for the Manuel Lisa post. And again he declared that if he might only escape, he surely would quit such a region forever.

Did he do it? Not he. Early in April, 1810, he was once more at the perilous Three Forks, but now with a company of other trappers. The deadly Blackfeet attacked, on the Jefferson, killed or captured five—and John Colter roundly asserted:

"That's three times for me, boys. I daren't risk a fourth time. I'm going to pull out for the States. Goodby."

He arrived in St. Louis in thirty days, having traveled three thousand miles, mainly by canoe. His stories of his fights and of the marvels he had discovered in the Yellowstone Park caused much talk in the newspapers and among the people. His fights were believed, but not his Yellowstone "yarns." He married, the next winter, and settled at Dundee, on the Missouri River in Franklin County, west of St. Louis. It was a tame life.

When the fur-traders and the beaver-trappers passed up, bound for the plains and mountains and the Blackfeet country, he eyed their "fixin's" wistfully, and longed to go. But he would not leave his wife, He postponed his next hunt until in November, 1813, he died of the jaundice while still an able-bodied man with his thoughts turned westward to the land of the fierce Blackfeet.