Friday, February 1, 2013

Mountain Man Tales and Romance Novels

by: Peggy Henderson

History is so full of events and memorable people that a writer is never short of a good story to tell. I enjoy researching about the early explorers and fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains because a majority of my romance novels are based in that era and that time in history. The stories and lore of the mountain men is sometimes as tall as the mountains themselves. Several stories I’ve stumbled across, whether true or not, are just too good to pass up, and I love to incorporate them into my romances, adding my own little spin.
In my book, Yellowstone Redemption, I knew when I was planning the book, that my hero would have an experience similar to what happened to John Colter, a man who is considered to be the first true mountain man, and the first non-native to see the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Regions.
Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and after leaving them in 1806, returned to the wilderness over and over again, leading other trappers to find beaver. In 1809, he was traveling by canoe with another trapper, John Potts, when a party of Blackfoot warriors attacked them. They killed Potts, and captures Colter. He was asked if he was a fast runner, and then ordered to strip off al his clothing and told to run. The young warriors of the group then pursued him. Here is the account as told to a newspaper reporter, John Bradbury, in 1817:

Again he turned his head, and saw the savage not twenty yards from him. Determined if possible to avoid the expected blow, he suddenly stopped, turned round, and spread out his arms. The Indian, surprised by the suddenness of the action, and perhaps at the bloody appearance of Colter, also attempted to stop; but exhausted with running, he fell whilst endeavouring to throw his spear, which stuck in the ground, and broke in his hand. Colter instantly snatched up the pointed part, with which he pinned him to the earth, and then continued his flight.

Colter next reached the Madison River, and hid inside a beaver lodge for the night, then walked for eleven days to reach the nearest trading outpost.

Here is an excerpt of my version of “Colter’s Run”, as it happened to my hero, Chase Russell in Yellowstone Redemption.

Nothing would stop him now from reaching the Firehole. He was running for his life, running to the woman he loved, and for the first time ever, he felt free. His lungs burned and his heart pounded in his throat. It was the most exhilarating feeling he’d ever had, and he felt alive.
He turned his head, looking over his shoulder again. Only one pursuer remained. The other had barely left the tree line. The one behind him was close enough that he could throw the spear he held in his hand.
Game time, Russell. Do something the opposition will least likely expect.
Chase stopped in his tracks. He whirled around, and assumed a fighting stance, his legs wide apart, his knees bent, and his arms out at his sides, holding his weapons in his hands. Breathing hard, a wide sneer crossed his face. The maneuver had worked. His opponent looked stunned and surprised. He tried to stop, tried to brandish his spear, but in his shocked disbelief, he tripped and fell to the ground. With a loud splintering noise, the spear broke in half. Chase gave him no chance to recover. With a loud roar he ran at the man on the ground. He dropped his weapons and grabbed for the broken lance. The man tried to struggle, but Chase used his size to his advantage, holding the warrior to the ground. He rammed the spearhead into the dirt, pinning the man’s shirt into the ground. He could have easily killed the warrior, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He hoped rendering him immobile would buy enough time to put some distance between them.
Chase stood and righted himself. His other pursuer was gaining ground, and he could also see several more warriors emerge from the trees. He lunged for his weapons, and took off again, straight for the bison herd. He remembered all the warning pamphlets he’d read that the park service provided, which stated to stay at least 25 yards away from bison. They were dangerous and could gore a man in seconds.
To hell with that. Chase needed another tactical surprise element. He ran straight for the herd. Several of the lumbering beasts looked up from their grazing when he approached. He didn’t slow down. He ran and darted between the big beasts. Several shied away, kicking and galloping in the opposite direction – the direction his pursuers came from. Chase whooped and punched the air with one hand, sending even more bison scurrying.
He could hear the rushing sound of the river now. It was just up ahead. He’d made it through the herd unharmed. He hoped his tactics had paid off. He couldn’t run any further. Plunging head first into the cold water, he welcomed the soothing feeling on his scorched skin. He gulped mouthfuls of water even as he swam downstream, aided by the current. He was swept past a beaver lodge. What had Sarah told him?
“I once hid from my brothers for an entire day inside a beaver lodge. They were so furious with me that I outsmarted them.”
“Thank you, Angel.” He grinned. He pulled himself through the water, back upstream towards the beaver dam. He dove and swam under the lodge, until he found the opening. When he resurfaced, he was in a dark, muddy chamber. A beaver sat in the mud, chatting loudly at seeing the intruder. Chase ignored it.
How long would he have to stay hidden? The cold water began to chill him, and it was dank inside the lodge. He pulled himself up onto the muddy platform. The beaver abandoned his perch and dove into the water, slapping his tail in protest. Did those Indians know this little trick? He could be a sitting duck for all he knew.
He drew his legs up close to his body, shivering as the minutes turned to hours. Once, he thought he heard voices just above, but they quickly died away. His surroundings darkened even more. Chase huddled against the mud, gritting his chattering teeth. He closed his eyes. If he could sleep for a few hours, he could continue to the geyser basin in the morning. He knew it might be best in the cover of night, but he’d get lost. In the blackness, he wouldn’t be able to see anything.
He drifted in and out of sleep. Sarah’s face materialized before him. Imagining her smile warmed his insides.
He was in love with her.
The realization still stunned him. Did she have feelings for him, too? Why should she? He wasn’t the kind of man she needed. She needed a strong man who knew his way around the mountains and would protect her from its dangers. He couldn’t even keep his own ass out of trouble.


Jacquie Rogers said...

Nice excerpt, Peggy!

John Colter's a fascinating character, an adrenaline junkie for sure. He had many exciting adventures, and the Lewis and Clark expedition just whetted his appetite. Amazing man.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Very cool. I certainly would be tempted to fall for a guy like Colter or Chase... as long as they bathed regularly and used their tooth powder. ;)

Neil A. Waring said...

Great post. I retired as a teacher of Wyoming and American West history last May. I have told this story to every class and it always brought great discussion. My students loved the Mountain Man unit each year.

This ol' Wyoming boy might even get tricked into reading a romance, knowing it had some good mountain man stuff--and John Colter's run is a great story.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I have a niggling old memory of a childhood song about John Colter. It told the whole story and the chorus line was, "Run, John Colter, run!" Of course, that's all I can remember.

So I've always known the story of his run, but if I knew he was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I'd forgotten that. Thanks for the tidbit.

mesadallas said...

I've often wondered why in the heck no one's ever made a movie about John Colter. He made signifigant contributions to American history which have been all but forgotten. In addition to being a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition he elected to stay in the wilderness by himself in order to continue exploring. He was the first known European to find what is now named Yellowstone National Park although when he told others about it no one believed him and refered to the are as "Colter's Hell. At the time of his famous escape from the Blackfeet he had joined the expedition of Manuel Lisa and helped establish the first trading post west of the Missouri. Returning to St. Louis a year or so after his escape the maps he drew were used for almost 75 years. When the War of 1812 broke out he served as a Ranger. It was at this time he died, (liver failure if I remember correctly)around the age of 35.

I have read an account that when he died his widow was too poor to afford a proper burial so she elected to place his body in their very small cabin as sort of a tomb sealing the doors and windows and left him there. Supposedly the cabin with Colter's body remained standing until the mid 1920's when the land on which the cabin stood was being cleared and the cabin was rediscovered. Colter's body was identified by a pouch of documents which had been placed with the body. I found this account of his burial several years ago on the internet while searching for information about him. I also read another account that his burial place is unknown and another that said he was buried in a cemetery (I forget where) so I really don't know which account, if any of these, are accurate.

mesadallas said...

Hey, Ellen, did it sound anything like "Run, Forest run!"?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I know it's a terrible lack, but I had to Google the Forest reference. I'm not much of a movie-goer and never saw that one.

Paty Jager said...

What a fun bit of history! And you used it well in the excerpt.

Meg said...

Exciting excerpt, Peggy! Great story, one I hadn't heard - I learned about Lewis & Clark, but not much more back in Michigan. In school they emphasized War of 1812, Mackinac Island, Erie Canal, etc. I wonder if history teachers do that, teach more regional stuff. A shame, cuz I've learned a TON of great western history as an adult.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Nice excerpt, Peggy. I remember a scene in a Louis L'Amour book where a man had to run for his life as you described in your post. I had no idea it was based on a real event. Loved your except, too.

Lyn Horner said...

Fascinating true tale, Peggy! I love how you used the bit where he hides in the beaver lodge. The beaver's reaction made me grin.

Devon Matthews said...

Love the sample from your story, Peggy! I could feel Chase's discomfort huddled in that beaver lodge. :o)