George Drouillard and John Colter

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the era of the eastern longhunter was drawing to a close and the time of the western explorer and beaver trapping mountain man was beginning, two men exemplified the rugged individualism and resourcefulness required to challenge the hostile Indians, fierce grizzly bears and all the dangers of existing hundreds of miles from civilization. George Drouillard, born approximately 1770 to a French Canadian trader and a Shawnee mother, had extensive knowledge of the wilderness and after serving as a hunter for the army out of Fort Massac, in 1803 at the age of thirty three, he was recruited by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter and hunter for their upcoming expedition.  He accepted the appointment as a civilian engagé.  Drouillard carried and usually used his own longrifle, not the military Harpers Ferry model 1803 that was issued to most of the others.  He hunted along the shoreline or out in front of the others as they proceeded by boat or in a large group on horseback.  Often he hunted with his friend John Colter.  Drouillard was an excellent marksman and he once killed a charging grizzly, only a few steps away, with a single shot to the brain.  Lewis and Clark thought so highly of him that upon their return, they paid him double the amount of payment he had been promised.  After they returned from the expedition, Drouillard and Colter continued life as hunters and trappers and joined Manuel Lisa’s trading company in the Rocky Mountains. In 1810, along the Jefferson River, Drouillard ran a trap line, for a few days alone, against the judgment of his companions.  The first two days were fine, but on the third day when he didn’t return to camp, his friends went looking for him.  They followed his trail and saw where the Blackfeet had picked up his tracks.  The signs told how he fought to the end, keeping his horse between himself and his enemies until eventually, the overwhelming number of Indians surrounded and killed him.  They found his dead horse and his decapitated body so near camp that if the wind hadn’t carried the sound of the fight away, Drouillard could possibly have been saved. Thirty year old John Colter, another member of the famed Corps of Discovery, was promoted to hunter and scout and was considered to have been so valuable to the expedition that he was the only member of the group to be discharged early by Lewis and Clark who “were disposed to be of service to anyone of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done”.  Colter then accompanied two fur trappers, Forrest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, back into Mandan country.  He left them after one season and joined Drouillard, John Potts and Peter Weiser who were again heading west with a large group of Lisa’s traders.  In the fall of 1808, while trapping  on the Jefferson River, Potts was killed and Colter was captured by the Blackfeet.  Colter was stripped naked and set free to be pursued by the warriors for sport. He outran all except one and when that pursuer finally caught up with him, Colter outfought him and killed him with his own spear.  He again outran his enemies, hid under some driftwood in the icy water near a beaver dam and swam to safety that night.  It then took seven more days for him to reach safety. By 1810, he had had enough of the hunter’s life, returned to Missouri, married and settled down to life as a farmer.  His legacy lives on in the boiling springs and steaming geysers of Yellowstone known as “Colter’s Hell” and on a large sandstone rock near the confluence of the Big Horn and Yellowstone rivers where he carved his name and the year, 1810.

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