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Unraveling the Mystery of John Colter

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Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 9:14 am

Ron Anglin remembers the day he “met” John Colter, the famed explorer with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the man legend says outran the Blackfeet Indians across what is now Montana and who is often described as America’s “first mountain man” for the years he spent alone in the wilderness before settling in northern Franklin County, Mo.

It was in Idaho 1997. Anglin — brother of Washington resident and former East Central College instructor John Anglin — was there trapping trumpeter swans as part of his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“We would go out on a snowmobile to pick up these trumpeteer swans so we could relocate them to the South,” said Anglin. “And one night we couldn’t go out because there was a blizzard, so I picked up a book with a section on John Colter and Henry’s Fork.”

A few pages in and Anglin was hooked — his chase for Colter was under way.

Later Anglin went to the local library for more information on Colter, but he wasn’t satisfied.

“The more I got into it and the more I read, I thought there have been thousands of hours of research done on this guy, and nobody is any closer to the truth today,” Anglin said, noting that much of the information that has previously been written on Colter is untrue or, at best, uncertain.

“Then I became fascinated with the people who were fascinated by Colter — people like Ralph Gregory and Ruth Colter-Frick . . . those are just two people from your area who had spent years researching Colter, but there are many more people across the country, and everybody thinks, ‘If I can just find this one kernel, I can unravel the whole mystery of this man’s life,’ but with Colter, the more you dig and more you unravel, the less you know.”

14 Linear Feet of Research

Still, Anglin, who lives in Fallon, Nev., himself became one of those same people who became fascinated with Colter. He began collecting research on the man, visiting the historic places of his past, meeting with other researchers, as well as Colter descendants and descendants of his supposed neighbors, striving to separate fact from fiction and legend.

Along the way, Anglin was given files from other Colter researchers who said they were finished trying to unravel the mystery.

Today Anglin has 14 linear feet of research on Colter which he stores in two 4-foot filing cabinets on either side of his rolltop desk in Fallon, Nev.

His research spans the years 1803 to the present with notes on when any new information or details were added to Colter’s story, thus showing how and when assumptions were made.

“A lot of people will say Colter died in November 1813, but that’s because a man in the ’20s became convinced that’s when (Colter) died because an inventory of his estate was done in December 1813, but that was probably because his wife petitioned to have the estate opened then so she could get the money owed to him,” said Anglin.

“Then when I got into Franklin County and all of these possible burial sites . . . where did all of these stories come from?” he asked.

One claims that Colter’s skeletal remains were found in a cabin in Dundee with a pouch that had the initials J.C. on it. The story goes that Colter died there and his wife left the remains.

“Who would believe this?” Anglin remarked.

Other burial stories required research and legwork to determine their veracity. Anglin made many trips to Missouri visiting local sites, talking with local residents and comparing all of it with his research and maps from the time.

He visited the current Humphrey farm in what is now Newport, which 200 years ago was the Sullens’ homestead — Colter was said to have lived near a Sullens in 1811.

He created a map showing where the mouth of Boeuf Creek was in 1811, which seemed to match Humphrey family tradition of where Colter’s cabin had been and another family’s oral tradition as well.

“A few days later I drove back to the Newport Church with some men from the Washington Historical Society,” Anglin writes. “Standing there, it occurred to me that I was looking at an amphitheater. If John Colter had picked this as the site of his homestead, he was picking it because it reminded him of the homesteads of his youth.”

The current property owners told Anglin of an old log home they had dismantled in the 1980s, but photos and other evidence doesn’t support that it was Colter’s cabin. Still, Anglin believes Colters cabin was located on their property.

“Assuming the location of his cabin is correct (Newport area), then where is John Colter buried?” Anglin asks before walking readers through the various (eight) theories that have been circulated over the last 200 years, including the idea that Colter was buried on “Tunnel Hill” at Dundee.

“Dundee did not exist in Colter’s day,” Anglin writes. “It came about when the Missouri Pacific Railroad constructed the first tunnel west of St. Louis through a bluff in the 1850s. The bluff later became known as Tunnel Hill. . . .

“In the spring of 1926, work was begun to bypass the old tunnel. As construction crews started work on the top of the bluff they started unearthing human skeletal remains . . . Someone in New Haven . . . said that was where John Colter . . . had been buried . . . Dr. E.B. Trail heard about the discovery and went to the construction site. In his investigation . . . he spoke with Sam Coulter, who was 71 at the time, and the grandson of John Colter. He asked Sam if, in fact, his grandfather could be buried there. Sam stated that is what he had been told by Jacob Krattli.”

Sam Coulter later provided an affidavit to the fact.

When those skeletal remains at Tunnel Hill were unearthed, some of the skulls were collected and kept by people. Anglin was able to see and photograph one of the skulls that belonged to a white male, whose teeth indicate he had a Western diet and was likely in his 30s or 40s.

Anglin also explores the New Haven connection to the story — that Colter’s bones were collected from Tunnel Hill in 1926, placed in a gunny sack and taken to the New Haven Cemetery where they were buried in an empty lot next to a Colter grave.

“To my knowledge there are no records of what, if anything, was placed in the new grave at New Haven,” Anglin writes. “This is a question that still needs to be answered.”

He also considers that Colter is buried at Richardson Cemetery, which, he notes, at one time was called the Colter Cemetery by locals.

Right now, Anglin is searching the National Archives for letters written by Nathan Boone in 1812 asking for details on how to pay the men who served in his company of mounted rangers — including Colter — for their service in the War of 1812.

Anglin has found records showing Colter was added to Boone’s muster roll March 3, 1812, was discharged May 6, 1812, and that he “died” May 7.

The word choice shows he wasn’t killed as a result of any wound from fighting, said Anglin. “Then it would have said he was ‘killed in action.’ ”

Anglin has found references to the letters in several abstracts and is now trying to track down the actual letters.

“If they still exist, I’ll find them,” he remarked.

“I’m a rat dog. Give me as assignment to ferret out all the information on something, and I will.”

Anglin believes there’s a good chance the Boone letters will settle many Colter controversies — like where and how he died, where he was buried and who his wife was.

“She would have had to prove she was his widow to get his back pay,” Anglin explained.

New Book Aims to Set Record Straight

Anglin, who has written one previous book, “Forgotten Trails, Historical Sources of Columbia’s Big Bend Country,” now in its third printing, has teamed up with fellow Colter researcher Larry Morris, of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose previous books include, “The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition,” which features a chapter on Colter, to write a definitive book on the elusive explorer.

It will be “an innovative and comprehensive study of a unique figure in American history,” the men wrote in their book proposal.

“Chasing John Colter” is the working title of the book, which is still a year or more away from being published, but the authors spoke to The Missourian about their research earlier this month, which was the 200th anniversary of Colter’s death on May 7, 1812.

“We will be knocking down myths and setting the record straight,” said Anglin, adding, “Everything you thought you knew about this man is not true.”

“It will be a book about what we know of John Colter, where he came from, how he developed as a person, why he moved to the Washington area, how he was the first white man in what is now Yellowstone and his escape from the Blackfeet Indians,” said Anglin.

A lack of documents from Colter, things like letters or a diary, make it difficult to make claims about his life.

“Second-, third- or fourth-hand accounts of his adventures are all we have,” the researchers write in their book proposal, “since Colter made his most notable sojourns alone, we have no witnesses to corroborate the accounts of his journeys.”

“We do want to set the record straight,” Morris told The Missourian. “There are certain things that are presumed about Colter, but we don’t know for certain because there aren’t any documents . . . so we looked at the best evidence and come to our conclusions.”

Some of those conclusions are at odds with claims made by communities around the country, places like Stuart’s Draft, Va., which put up a marker claiming it to be Colter’s birthplace.

In Chapter Two of their book, Anglin and Morris note, “All of this offers a prime example of how a seemingly solid historical structure can be assembled on a house of cards. During the second half of the 20th century, three descendants of John Colter — Ruth Colter-Frick, Shirley Winkelhoch, and Donna Masterson, all expert genealogists — began finding problems with the ‘party line’ about Colter.

“In her 1997 book ‘Courageous Colter and Companions,’ Colter-Frick made it clear that the John Coulter born to Joseph and Ellen Shields Coulter was still alive in 1815, while the John Colter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition died in 1812. None of these three devoted researchers found any evidence that Colter had actually been born in Virginia. Janet Logan had no doubt been sincere, but she was mistaken — there was no evidence linking Colter to her Coalter/Coulter line.”

Stuart’s Draft, however, isn’t alone in being singled out by Anglin and Morris for making claims about Colter that are now believed to be false.

“ . . . the fine residents of Stuart’s Draft are in good company. The citizens of at least two other towns in the United States also claim a proud connection to John Colter, with roadside plaques providing details of that connection, but careful research has failed to support either of those claims.

“The obvious question is this: Do we know anything about Colter’s origins?

“The answer is yes. We still don’t know his birthplace or his parents’ names, but, as Chapter 3 shows, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis offered a good deal of information about Colter’s background and the skills he mastered as a youth.”

New Information

Other new information on Colter that is included in Anglin and Morris’ book is:

• Regarding Colter’s route through the wilderness, generations of scholars have debated whether Colter crossed the Tetons into Idaho and circled back into Yellowstone Park. Anglin and Morris believe he did not.

Drawing on primary documents, their own travels in the area, and John Logan Allen’s recent use of digitally enhanced images of William Clark’s 1810 map, the authors will produce an up-to-date, thorough analysis of this issue.

• Colter’s legendary run across Montana will be analyzed through the four original accounts of Colter’s escape from Blackfeet warriors: those of William H. Thomas, John Bradbury, Thomas James, and Washington Irving.

• Colter’s complex financial affairs will be examined with entirely new analyses of the likely sites for his cabin and his grave.

• Finally, Anglin and Morris will explore the intriguing story of why so many researchers have been so obsessed with Colter and yet have published so little.

When the book is published, Anglin and Morris say they plan to do everything they can to promote it, including making visits to Franklin County to speak about their research and conclusions.

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