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In Honor of George Colgate, the Man They Left Behind

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I don’t usually get attached to people I’ve never met, especially not when they’ve been dead for more than 100 years. But when I was traveling along U.S. 12, famous for paralleling the route that Lewis and Clark took in 1805 and 1806, I came across a small, grassy site called Colgate Licks, with a simple placard describing the ill-fated tale of George Colgate, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t leave his story alone.

You see, George was the cook in a hunting party that traveled deep into a dense and remote forest along the Lochsa River in Idaho in the fall of 1893. According to the placard, George became ill and unable to walk, so the hunting party left him behind. His remains were found later and were buried at the site.

Colgate Licks is a glade with mineral deposits off U.S. Hwy 12 in Idaho. The site itself didn’t fascinate me as much as the mysterious and sad story of the man for whom it was named.

While reading the sign, not even knowing who these men were or all the details of their story, I actually became upset. It just seemed so unfair.

“They left George behind!” I yelled as I stared incredulously at the placard. “They just left him to die!”

I then turned to my dad and continued my rant. “He was their cook!” I yelled as I paced back and forth at the site. “He fed them, and they left him to starve.”

We got back in the car to continue on to Washington, but my mind was still with George. I immediately started running different scenarios through my mind:

  • Did George beg and plead with them not to leave him?
  • Did they sneak off while he was sleeping?
  • Did George, realizing he’d only be holding them back, selflessly offer to stay behind?
  • Or did his friends say, “Don’t worry, George. We’ll be right back…” as they snuck away forever?

I speculated. I wondered. And then I Googled.

Surprisingly, I came across quite a few details about George Colgate.

The most fascinating thing I found was a scanned copy of a New York Times article from Dec. 30, 1893 claiming that George Colgate was still alive because a letter with his signature on it had been found in a bottle in the Snake River. The letter said it was from George Colgate, that he was still alive, and it asked for a search party to come rescue him. Here’s the letter directly quoted from the NYT article:

Bitter Root Mountains, Nov. 27

I am alive and well. Tell them to come and get me as soon as any one finds this. I am fifty miles from civilization, as near as I can tell. I am George Colgate, one of the lost Carlin party. My legs are better. I can walk some. Come soon. Take this to Kendrick, Idaho, and you will be liberally rewarded. My name is George Colgate, from Post Falls. This bottle came by me one day and I caught it, and write these words to take me out. Direct to the St. Elmo Hotel, Kendrick, Idaho.

George Colgate

Goodbye, wife and children.

The article says the signature had been verified as being George’s, and despite the hunting party’s insistence that the letter could not be true, a search party was organized to look for him.

When the article was published, the search party had just been sent out, so it has no information about whether they ever found anything.

However, I came across this article on findagrave.com that says George’s son and some others went to look for him but never found him or his remains. Then in the summer of 1894, a survey crew, by accident, came across a human skeleton, along with clothing and other objects that verified–without a doubt–that the body was George’s. What’s peculiar is the body was found five or six miles from where the hunting party left George, which led to two conclusions:

  1. Some believed that if George was able to walk five or six miles on his own, he must have been well enough to make it back with some help.
  2. Others believed the hunting party was right to leave George behind because he wouldn’t have made it anyway.

To be fair, the NYT article also reports the hunting party said George’s legs were so badly swollen, he could barely move. Furthermore,  a doctor who had treated George before confirmed that there was no way George could have made it back alive. And the men that left him behind did pay a price for it. They seem to have been deeply scorned by society for leaving George. Post Falls, George’s hometown, even held an “indignation” meeting to publicly denounce the hunters. One member of the hunting party later issued a statement in the New York Times, justifying what he and his friends did. 

Obviously, we may never know what really happened, but I still feel strangely connected to George’s story. I have been so absorbed by his story, so hungry for details. What is it about coming across historic sites that makes us analyze ourselves? Even when things have happened so long ago, when we learn a story from the past, it seems to merge with our own. History makes us care about the fate of people we never even met. Then again, maybe I’m just overly sensitive.

That’s part of what I loved about being a journalist. I am so genuinely interested in people, and I love learning more about their stories. That’s also what I didn’t like about being a journalist; I sometimes became so absorbed with people’s stories that their hurt became mine too.

And that’s what I love about writing. Fiction writing is just as much about putting words onto paper as it is about figuring out who your characters are. Asking those questions: what would he/she do in this situation? How would he/she feel about that?

Though his story is shrouded in mystery, and I know very little about him, I feel the need to dedicate this post to George Colgate, the man they left behind.

One last note: You can visit his grave near Colgate Licks in Idaho, or you can actually leave virtual flowers at George’s grave by visiting findagrave.com. 50 people have already done so.

Colgate Licks Placard
The puzzling artist’s rendition of the dangers that befell George Colgate’s hunting party.
Colgate Licks in Idaho
The steps leading up to the Colgate Licks area in Idaho
The extremely dense forests of the Bitter Root Mountains. It’s easy to see why Colgate’s hunting party had a hard time getting through this.
Stream at Colgate Licks in Idaho
Water flowing from the natural hot springs at Colgate Licks

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