John Colter, His Years in the Rockies

By Burton Harris; David Lavender | Go to book overview
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Introduction to the Bison Book Edition

David Lavender

Who came here first—first to the great sagebrush valleys, the deep mountain passes, the twilight silence of the forests? Americans like to ask those questions. Their country is still young. The exhilaration of exploration, discovery, and conquest can still be relived with a feeling of immediacy.

Such was the urge that consumed Burton Harris, author of John Colter, His Years in the Rockies, half a century ago. Although Harris was then living in New York City, he had grown up in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin, at a town called Basin, forty miles south of the Montana border. Because the huge, mountain-rimmed bowl was part of his identity, he began wondering. Who had been the first white person there? Where had he or she come from? How? Why?

The search led Harris to the redoubtable figure of John Colter—so redoubtable that the searcher felt the explorer deserved a fresh, scholarly biography. But soon he was faced with a lack of verifiable material about his subject. Although he worked diligently, the same dearth continued to haunt him twenty-five years later when he was preparing an addendum to the original text of this book.

John Colter probably lived no more than forty years. He was born, presumably in Virginia, sometime between 1770 and 1775. He died in Missouri Territory in November 1813. Nothing is known of his childhood or youth and very little about his final three years. He is said to have been six feet tall and marvelously coordinated, with a countenance like Daniel Boone's, but such statements are stereotypes for almost all pioneers.

He emerged from obscurity late in the summer of 1803 when he enlisted as a private in what President Jefferson called the Corps of Discovery, but which we refer to more often as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He left the homeward-bound group on August 15, 1806, at the villages

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