Colter's Grand Tour


by Josh Kelly

The first white man who is known to have traveled through Yellowstone actually came up the Missouri River with Lewis and Clark. But, as they returned to the States, John Colter decided that he wanted to stay in the Rocky Mountains and begin a life trapping the beaver rich waters of the West. e returned upstream with a group of trappers employed by a Spanish American entrepreneur named Manuel Lisa and built Fort Raymond at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. Lisa sent men out that fall to "advertise" the trading post to surrounding Indians.
Colter might have witnessed a scene like this on his epic journey.  

Colter was one of those men who left the fort and toured the mountains that fall and winter to alert Crows and other Indians of Lisa’s intent to trade. The details of Colter’s five hundred-mile winter trek are debatable because he did not leave a written account. However, he did tell others about his trip, and many of the places he traveled can be verified from their information. 

Colter explored the Bighorn Basin and the Wind River areas where he probably encountered Crows in their wintering grounds and gathered geographic information from them. Some of them may have occasionally traveled with Colter as well. From there he probably went west to what would become Jackson Hole and over Teton Pass to Pierre’s Hole. He then went north into the current boundaries of Yellowstone Park where he found Yellowstone Lake and followed its western shore to the lake’s outlet and down the river from there. Colter may have gone as far down the Yellowstone River as the mouth of the Lamar River and followed that river to the Absoroka Mountains and back down to the Bighorn River where he returned to Lisa’s trading post. 

Colter returned with stories of the thermal features that he found in the area. One of which became known as "Colter’s Hell" to fur trappers in the years that followed. He told his companions of the steam that constantly filled the air and the odor that accompanied it. Although he may not have understood the geological forces at work in Yellowstone, Colter’s knowledge of the region’s geography and experience with the Crows became important tools for the fur trade. Later traders went to the area to verify the accounts of what they heard and eventually their knowledge of the area was put to use in mapping it. Continue to the next page, Early Yellowstone Visitors.

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