Who was John Colter? He was a companion of Lewis and Clark on their trek across the continent from 1803 to 1806 and is often credited with discovering what later became Yellowstone National Park (as if no native Americans had ever set foot in the volcanic region). He ventured alone into the valleys of the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Snake Rivers to trap beaver, always failing to make a profit to cover expenses. He led a large group of trappers into the same area, and they also failed to bring many pelts back; some even lost their lives. He was the subject of many popular frontier legends of the early 19th century, especially the story of his run to escape being killed by Blackfoot warriors. He was a key witness to the exploration of the American West, but he left no accounts of his own. Only a sort of figure eight drawn on a map by William Clark remains, and even what that means is disputed. In short, according to Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris in Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires: The Mystery of John Colter and Yellowstone, Colter is a mystery.
I was drawn to this book because I have been to Yellowstone, where Colter's name is mentioned on history boards at many of the visitor's centers and in the books found in their bookshops. I could not help wonder what it would be like to explore such a wild and unforgiving place alone. The authors of this book did not tell me because Colter did not tell anybody. The authors did, however, lure me into contemplating the mystery of a man for whom there are no records prior to the Lewis and Clark journals and payroll.
If you chose to read this book about first encounters between native tribes and frontiersmen, get a good map of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for reference. Then get lost in a story of a time now so hard to imagine. Then read either Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier by Lea VanderVelde for another life of a person more imagined than known or Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled the American Frontier by Shirley Christian to learn more about the frontier into which Lewis, Clark, and Colter ventured.
Anglin, Ronald M. and Larry E. Morris. Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires: The Mystery of John Colter and Yellowstone. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 243 p. ISBN 9781442226005.