“Coulter’s Hell” — Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers when John Coulter left the Lewis and Clark expedition to continue exploring the northwest.

In his travels, he became the first known white man to view the strange and interesting geology of the Yellowstone area.

Once he returned to the settlements in Missouri, no one believed his descriptions of the area, instead they called them “Coulter’s Hell.”

From William Clark’s journal entry for August 15, 1806:

“Colter one of our men expressed a desire to join Some trappers [NB: the two Illinois Men we met, & who now came down to us] who offered to become Shearers with and furnish traps &c.    the offer a very advantagious one, to him, his Services Could be dispenced with from this down and as we were disposed to be of Service to any one of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done, we agreed to allow him the prvilage provided no one of the party would ask or expect a Similar permission to which they all agreeed that they wished Colter every Suckcess and that as we did not wish any of them to Seperate untill we Should arive at St. Louis they would not apply or expect it &c.”


In 1880, the Superintendent provided a description of the early views into the park in his Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1880:


This wonderful region is really less one large park than a group of smaller ones, partially or wholly isolated, upon both sides of the Continental Divide, much lower in the Park than the nearly unbroken surrounding mountain ranges.

Its average altitude probably exceeds that of Yellowstone Lake, which is some 8,000 feet, or nearly a half mile higher than Mount Washington.

Its few yawning, ever difficult, often impassable, canon-approaches along foaming torrents; the superstitious awe inspired by the hissing springs, sulphur basins, and spouting geysers; and the infrequent visits of the surrounding pagan Indians have combined to singularly delay the exploration of this truly mystic land.

Although Lewis and Clarke, by ascending the Jefferson instead of the Madison or Gallatin Fork of the Missouri in 1805, crossed the Rocky Mountain divide some seventy miles west of the Park without its discovery, yet it is from a member of that early band of Northwestern explorers that we derive our first knowledge of its existence.

Coulter and Potts, after their discharge in 1806, retraced Captain Clarke’s return route, via the Yellowstone River and Bozeman Pass, to the Three Forks of the Missouri.

They there continued to trap and hunt until Potts was killed and Coulter captured in a Blackfeet Indian ambuscade below the famous Beaverhead landmark upon the Jefferson.

Coulter was allowed to run the gauntlet for his life, and, being remarkably fleet of foot, distanced all but one of his pursuers, whom he pinned to the earth with his own war-lance, escaping over six miles of prickly-pear plain to some drift-wood at the head of an island in the Jefferson.

Unarmed, naked, and lacerated, he, through untold dangers, hardships, and suffering, reached a trading-post on the Lower Yellowstone, rearmed himself, and returning to his Bannock friends, for years hunted, trapped, and, with relentless vengeance, fought the Blackfeet Indians.

The haunt of the main Bannock tribe was at Henry’s Lake, west of the Park; that of their little Sheepeater band within it; their main buffalo range being upon the Big Horn, east of it, and doubtless with them Coulter visited the Great Falls, Yellowstone Lake, and some of the fire-hole basins and spouting geysers, and after his return to Missouri in 1810 gloried in describing them.

Yet, so little credence was given to his descriptions, that for many years, even long after I was first upon the Lower Yellowstone, “Coulter’s Hell” was a standing camp-fire jest upon now well-known realities.

But John Coulter was, without a shade of doubt, the first white explorer of any portion of the Yellowstone National Park.


John Coulter died of jaundice in 1813 long before anyone ever believed his fantastic stories of the area now known as Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with a stereographic view of the park from the mid 1800s.

Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin