John Colter was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1774. In October 1803, Colter joined the Corps of Discovery, an expedition of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase, led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis.

After leaving the expedition in 1806 Colter returned to his life as a mountain man. In 1807 Colter and two companions, Joseph Dickson and Forrest Hancock, were trapping beaver along the Yellowstone river in Wyoming. The party came across a wilderness that included high waterfalls, deep canyons, hot springs and geysers. The area later became known as the Yellowstone Park.

In 1808 Colter was trapping in the Three Folks region with his friend John Potts when they were captured by Blackfeet. Potts was killed but the warriors decided to have some fun with Colter. He was stripped naked and set free and told to run as fast as he could. Given a brief start, the warriors set off in pursuit. After two miles Colter had outpaced all but one of the warriors. Colter turned around and after struggling with the warrior he managed to kill him with his own spear.

Colter was able to evade his pursuers and with only bark and roots to eat, walked the 200 miles back to Fort Raymond. The journey had taken him eleven days. As soon as Colter regained his strength he returned to Three Folks to recover his traps.

In 1809 Colter joined the St. Louis Missouri Fur Trading Company expedition. This included the building of a fort at Three Forks. After experiencing further attacks for the Blackfeet Colter decided to leave the area.

Colter got married to Nancy Hooker and settled in New Haven, Missouri. John Colter died of jaundice in November, 1813.