John Colter accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition, 1804-1806. Colter then traveled the mountain wilderness alone for months, being considered the first “mountain man.” In 1807, Colter became the first person of European descent to see the Teton Mountain Range and traverse the area that became known as Yellowstone National Park. His description of bubbling mudpots, geysers and steaming pools of water, resulted in the area being named “Colter’s Hell.”
In 1809, hundreds of Blackfeet captured John Colter. His friend, John Potts, was riddled with bullets and hacked to pieces. Wanting to make a sport out of killing Colter, Indians stripped him naked and forced him run the gauntlet. He was chased by dozens of young warriors across miles of prairie. After running for his life nearly five miles, bleeding from his nose, Colter grabbed the spear from his closed assailant and killed him. As other warriors stopped to see their dead friend, Colter raced ahead to the chilly Madison River, where he dove in and swam under a beaver dam.
Washington Irving wrote in Astoria (1836, chapter 15), that John Colter: “… swam below water until he succeeded in getting a breathing place between the floating trunks of trees. … He had scarcely drawn breath after all his toils, when he heard his pursuers on the river bank, whooping and yelling like so many fiends. They plunged in the river. … The heart of Colter almost died within him as he saw them, through the chinks of his concealment, passing and repassing, and seeking for him in all directions. … He remained until nightfall … finding by the silence around that his pursuers had departed. … Colter dived again and came up … then swam silently down the river.”
Colter then walked naked and exposed to the weather for 11 days to a trading fort on the Little Big Horn.
Other famous mountain men of the early 19th century included:
- John “Grizzly” Adams
- John “Liver-Eating” Johnson
- Thomas L. “Pegleg” Smith
- “Blackfoot” John Smith
- John Albert
- Jim Baker
- William Henry Ashley
- Jim Bridger
- Kit Carson
- William Sublette
- Jean Baptiste Charbonneau
- John C. Fremont
- Robert “Doc” Newell
- Black mountain man James Beckwourth
- Jedediah Smith
Jedediah Smith’s travels were exceeded only by Lewis and Clark. He led expeditions up the Missouri River with such characters as keelboatman Mike Fink – the notorious brawler and braggart.
Smith was a renown frontiersman, hunter, trapper, and map-maker. He explored the Rocky Mountains, from the Northwest to the Southwest. Smith helped discover the “South Pass” through the Rockies and the first land route to California, which opened the door for the largest voluntary mass migration in world history of nearly 400,000.
Leading settlers across the Santa Fe Trail, Smith’s party were the first white Americans to cross the the Mojave Desert into California. Returning east, Smith and his party were the first U.S. citizens to cross the treacherous Sierra Nevada and Great Basin Desert. His was the first documented exploration from the Salt Lake to the Colorado River. Smith and his companions were also the first U.S. citizens to travel by land up the California and Oregon coast.
Born June 24, 1798, Jedediah Smith’s adventurous career began at age of 22, when he answered an add in the Missouri Gazette, place by Missouri’s Lieutenant Governor, William H. Ashley, seeking: “Enterprising Young Men … to ascend the river Missouri to its source … to be employed for … three years.”
Jedediah Smith was known to carry two books, the Bible and a copy of Lewis & Clark’s Expedition. He never drank, never used tobacco, and never boasted.
Jedediah Smith wrote in his journal: “Then let us come forward with faith, nothing doubting, and He will most unquestionably hear us.”
Jedediah Smith entered into a fur-trapping partnership, “Smith, Jackson and Sublette,” and in 1827 sold furs at a rendezvous near the Great Salt Lake. When fellow trapper John Gardner died, Jedediah Smith gave the eulogy, as recorded by expedition member Hugh Glass: “Mr. Smith, a young man of our company made a powerful prayer which moved us all greatly and I am persuaded John died in peace.”
As captain of his second expedition, Jedidiah Smith was attacked by a grizzly bear, as Jim Clyman described: “The Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprang on the capt taking him by the head first pitching sprawling on the earth … breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly. … The bear had taken nearly all his head in his capacious mouth close to his left eye on one side and close to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head. … One of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim. …”
Smith had Jim Clyman sew his scalp back on, but the ear was too cut to save. Smith insisted he try, as Clyman wrote: “I put my needle sticking it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands.”
After two weeks of rest, Smith resumed leading the expedition.
On Dec. 24, 1829, from the Wind River on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, Jedediah Smith wrote to his parents in Ohio: “It is a long time since I left home & many times I have been ready, to bring my business to a close & endeavor to come home; but have been hindered hitherto. … However I will endeavor, by the assistance of Divine Providence, to come home as soon as possible … but whether I shall ever be allowed the privilege, God only knows. …”
Jedediah Smith continued: “I feel the need of the watch & care of a Christian Church. You may well suppose that our Society is of the roughest kind. Men of good morals seldom enter into business of this kind – I hope you will remember me before the Throne of Grace. … May God in His infinite mercy allow me soon to join My Parents is the Prayer of your undutiful Son, Jedediah S. Smith.”
In a letter to his brother, Ralph, Dec. 24, 1829, Jedediah Smith wrote: “Many Hostile tribes of Indians inhabit this Space. … In August 1827, ten Men who were in company with me lost their lives by the Amuchabas Indians. … In July 1828, fifteen men who were in company with me lost their lives by the Umpquah Indians. … Many others have lost their lives in different parts. … My Brother … I have need of your Prayers … to bear me up before the Throne of Grace.”
Jedidiah Smith sold his shares in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830 and retired, buying a townhouse in St. Louis. However, he had agreed to go on one last trip for the Sublette and Jackson Company, leaving in the spring of 1831. On May 27, 1831, while looking for water along the Santa Fe Trail in southwest Kansas, Jedediah Smith was ambushed by Comanche warriors and killed.
Just four months earlier, Jan. 26, 1831, Jedediah Smith had written to his brother Ralph in Wayne County, Ohio: “Some, who have made a profession of Christianity & have by their own negligence caused the Spirit to depart, think their day of grace is over; but where did they find Such doctrine? I find our Saviour ever entreating & wooing us.”
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