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A Note on "The Mountain Man as Literary Hero” In his excellent article on the literary treatment of the moun­ tain man,1 Professor Don Walker discusses the legend of John Colter’s flight and escape from the Blackfeet Indians as A. B. Guthrie handles it in his short story “Mountain Medicine,” in which the name of Colter is changed to Clell. In this brief note, I should like to raise an issue concerning one short passage in Professor Walker’s article. He writes: “Clell differs from Colter in only a few ways and in only one major change of action. To escape the Indians, he shoulders his way into the dark interior of a beaver lodge. Such a change, however, would alone hardly give special meaning to a story. Indeed it might tend to lessen the sense of probability. Guthrie, I assume, willingly ran this risk because he believed the fictional ending supports a dimen­ sion added to Colter’s character.” 2 The question which I should like to raise is whether Guthrie actually invented the incident in which Clell (Colter) finds refuge in a beaver lodge. As I once pointed out in a brief biography of Colter,3 there are actually two original versions of Colter’s race for life, one re­ corded by John Bradbury and a second by Thomas James. In the first, Colter told Bradbury that after outrunning the Blackfeet he reached the Jefferson Fork and plunged into it. “Fortunately for him,” Bradbury says, “a little below this place there was an island, against the upper point of which a raft of drift timber had lodged. He dived under the raft, and after several efforts, got his head above water amongst the trunks of trees, covered over with smaller 1Western American Literature, I (Spring, 1968), 15-25. 2Ibid., 17-18. 3“John Colter, Mountain Man,” Colorado Quarterly, II (Summer, 1953), 79-91. 220 Western American Literature trees to the depth of several feet.”4 It is this version of the incident which Professor Walker says Guthrie modified by having Colter enter a beaver hut, assuming on very good grounds that Guthrie was departing from his source in Bradbury. “I made fiction of Brad­ bury’s account,” Guthrie states, “staying as close to the record as the short-story form seemed to permit.”5 But did Guthrie rely solely upon Bradbury, as he says, or did he resort to an unacknowledged source? Anyone acquainted with The Big Sky must recognize that Guthrie has a thorough knowl­ edge of the literature bearing on the history of the fur trade. It seems hardly likely that he was unacquainted with Thomas James’ Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, first published in 1846. Like Bradbury, James also knew Colter personally —was, in­ deed, a fellow trapper on the Upper Missouri —and received from him the story of his race with the Blackfeet. James writes: “In one of his many excursions from this post to the Forks of the Missouri, for beaver, he made the wonderful escape adverted to in the last chapter and which I give precisely as he related it to me. His veracity was never questioned among us. . . ,”6 But James had from Colter an entirely different account of his place of refuge from that which Colter also gave to Bradbury. Colter, he relates, “. . . reached his goal, the Madison river and the end of his five mile heat. Dash­ ing through the willows on the bank he plunged into the stream and saw close beside him a beaver house, standing like a coal-pit about ten feet above the surface of the water. . . . This presented to him a refuge from his ferocious enemies of which he immedi­ ately availed himself. Diving under the water he arose into the beaver house, where he found a dry and comfortable resting place on the upper floor or story of this singular structure.”7 (Should anyone question the size of this beaver lodge, I can assure him that the statement is perfectly sound, for I have seen and photographed two lodges of that size, one of which I shall gladly show to any­ 4 Travels in the Interior of America, reprinted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 219-221
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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