Farm & Garden
Nature Writing
Science Writing

Out of the Past
Western History and Americana

 John Colter Explores Hell
Colter's Hell is a mostly inactive geyser district located just west of Cody, Wyoming, at the mouth of the Stinkingwater River Canyon (see photo at right).

While geyser activity has been minimal in recent times,  there are accounts of geothermal activity similar to that inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park in the not too distant past. 

John Colter, an intrepid member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, gave the first accounts of the area to non-native Americans following his solo journey of 1807-1808. But Colter's descriptions of gloomy terrors, hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious streams and the all-pervading smell of brimstone were too wild for his listeners to believe. They derisively dubbed the imaginary place "Colter's Hell."

It wasn't until Thomas Moran painted the natural features of Yellowstone National Park and William Jackson brought back photographs in 1871 that the American public realized that Colter's accounts were no fantasy.

"While the true Colter's Hell was outside of Cody, it was also erroneously associated with an active geothermal area in the northwestern section of Yellowstone National Park," Michael Rutter points out in Myths and Mysteries of the Old West.

"Hiriam M. Chittenden perpetuated the false mythology in his book Yellowstone National Park. He called the Geyser Basin Colter's Hell. This was an honest error on his part, but the name caught on. For more than a hundred years now, folks have equated Geyser Basin with with John Colter. While he traveled a greatr deal, Colter never actually made it to that sulfurous section of Yellostone National Park. Chittenden corrected the error, incidentally, in his next book, a book worth reading, called American Fur Traders of the Far West. Colter'splace in folklore had already been sealed however, and the legen continues to this day." 

Sources: Grant Teton Natural History Association
                  Yelllowsone Association
                  Colter's Hell and Jackson's Hole

Colter Stone
The head-shaped Colter Stone, which may have been carved by the famous mountain man, was discovered near Tetonia, Idaho, in 1931. One side reads, "John Colter," the other, "1808." The stone was found by a farmer plowing his field; he traded it for a pair of boots. Grand Teton National Park

Myths and Mysteries of the Old West by Michael Rutter

The Old West of the 18th and 19th centuries was an era prior to 24-hour news coverage and video documentaries. The public perception of those days is largely based on subjective newspaper accounts, personal diaries, and dime novels. Consequently, there are many mythologies about those rough and tumble times.

This book aims to set the record straight on a dozen such myths, including:

What really happened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in South America.

How the California Gold Rush really started.

How many men were killed by Wild Bill Hickok.

Whether a horse named Comanche survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Devil's Gate
Devil's Gate
Owning the Land, Owning the Story
by Tom Rea 

More Out of the Past

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