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Caldera Chronicles

Caldera Chronicles is a weekly article written by U.S. Geological Survey Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientists and colleagues.

May 20, 2019 Article Link

Colter's Hell: Tales of the First European-American to Step Foot in Yellowstone

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Cole Messa, Ph.D. student, and Ken Sims, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, both at the University of Wyoming.

Imagine for a moment that you could turn back the clock some two-hundred years or so and embark on a journey from east to west across the North American continent. You would be unaware of what lay beyond the great plains of the American heartland and oblivious to the Rocky Mountains that would thwart your path. Imagine that you had never heard of Yellowstone, or geysers and hot springs, and as far as you were concerned nature was epitomized by the patchy, deciduous forests and rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains.

During your march west, you would find yourself alone at the doorstep of another world, the smell of rotten eggs in the air, game abundant, the ground soft but warm beneath your aching feet, and all around you are jets of steaming water and pools of colorful splendor. Would anyone ever believe you if you told them what you saw? So goes the life of the first mountain man to see Yellowstone: John Colter.

It was 1803 when John Colter, already a skilled hunter and scout, joined the Corps of Discovery – the Lewis and Clark expedition -- before it set out from St. Louis, Missouri, in an effort to document the lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Upon reaching the Pacific coast of modern-day Washington and Oregon, the expedition began its return trip to the Mandan villages of modern-day North Dakota, and it is here, in 1806, that John Colter made a choice that would etch his name into history forever.

The company encountered a couple of fur trappers, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, who were planning to follow the Missouri River in search of game. Colter joined up to lead the two fur trappers, and they embarked northward along the Missouri River. The partnership lasted only a few months, however, and by early 1807 Colter was on his way back to St. Louis. As he approached the Platte River, Colter encountered another trading company run by Manuel Lisa and including some former members of the Corps of Discovery. They were in route to the Yellowstone River, and Colter again turned west, back to the wilderness. The group would build Fort Raymond at the intersection of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, and it was from here that John Colter set out alone late in 1807 to establish trade relations with the Crow nation.

During the next year, Colter's nearly 500-mile route would take him across the Continental Divide into what today is Jackson Hole and eventually over Teton Pass into modern-day Idaho. Colter would then venture back across the Teton Range and head north along Jackson Lake and into what is now Yellowstone National Park, making Colter the first European-American to set eyes on the Teton Range and the Yellowstone region. Most notably, Colter's journey took him along Yellowstone Lake, where he would have encountered abundant thermal features, like hot springs and geysers. Alone in this completely uncharted territory, one can only begin to imagine the emotions that Colter was surely experiencing.

William Clark
William Clark's 1814 map, indicating the route of John Colter during the winter of 1807-1808. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.)

There is much debate among the historical community regarding what exactly Colter saw during his lonesome trek through the Yellowstone wilderness. One thing is certain: Colter's tales of fire and brimstone would seldom be accepted by the people with whom he shared his tales of adventure. In fact, a region of land along the Shoshone River that today is marked by mostly extinct thermal features is known most appropriately as "Colter's Hell"—a name that started as a joke by Colter's disbelieving audiences, but is now a mark of respect for Colter's incredible journey.

Now, ask yourself: if a mountain man told you the story of a place, deep in the mountains of the American West, where water spewed from the ground with such force and heat that the Earth shook beneath your feet, would you believe him? It is this sense of wonder and disbelief of a place so extraordinary that drives our reverence for the first national park. It is this idea that fuels the need to protect, conserve, and study Yellowstone, for it is a uniquely special environment that, no matter how many times one lays eyes on it, continues to challenge our very understanding and perception of the natural world.