John Colter, His Years in the Rockies

By Burton Harris; David Lavender | Go to book overview
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Chapter Two

With Lewis and Clark

Until a lie detector is devised that will analyse the printed page, the extent to which the legend of John Colter has permeated western literature cannot be assayed. Many books, written with more concern for entertainment than the accurate reporting of historical events, include at least one fanciful version of a Colter exploit. Their authors, once in full creative flight, rarely retard it by earthbound references to dusty source material. In many instances, it is a waste of time to seek the unmentioned authorities for the lurid anecdotes, and upon occasion the question arises whether the author may not have stimulated his invention by something more potent than black coffee.

Grave historians are popularly supposed to have winnowed every fact they have written down with the same majestic impartiality that a giant combine separates a field of ripened grain into sacks of wheat, straw and windblown chaff. The truth is, however, that just as the threshing machine occasionally sorts into the grain sack a few weeds and pebbles, the serious writer also incorporates into his text fragments of a legend or popular conception of an event, without a trace of authority. During extended research into, and assembly of, indisputable Colter sources, it appeared that historians as highly regarded as Coutant and Hubert Bancroft were not above making positive statements without the slightest qualification, although study of their cited authorities revealed clearly that what they said could only have been conjecture. New material, subsequently discovered, proves this beyond a doubt.

The strong appeal of Colter's extraordinary exploits and the scarcity of first-hand information are the obvious reasons for this situation. When one considers that the first written record about


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