The characters John Dunbar (from the 1990 film Dances with Wolves) and John Colter (a mountain man described by author Stanley Vestal) are similar in that both white men ventured into the western frontier alone, built relations with the Indians, and found themselves the heroes of unlikely battles. The context and sequence of events, though, is slightly different. Dunbar, a decorated Union Army officer, attempts suicide by riding alone into the Confederate lines; instead of dying, however, he inadvertently rallies his troops, who attack and overwhelm their enemies.
As a reward for his unintentional heroism, he requests and receives an assignment to a remote South Dakota outpost and finds himself alone and isolated there, except for the nearby Lakota. He also leads them in battle against their enemy, using his post’s weapons and his cavalry tactics to lead them to victory, and assimilates to their way of life. In “John Colter’s Race for Life,” the title character is a mountain man working in the fur trade during the first decade of the nineteenth century.
Like Dunbar, he is dispatched to a region of the frontier virtually devoid of whites. He intends to trade with the Blackfeet, reaching their land with help from the Crows. However, when the Blackfeet attack the Crows, he finds himself in the middle of a skirmish between the two peoples, and, like Dunbar, joins in the fight (albeit unwillingly). However, this does not endear him to the Crows, who leave him in the Teton Basin, and he later flees from the avenging Blackfeet.
Though their motivations and reasons for ending up on the frontier are quite different, both Dunbar and Colter are lone whites amidst the Plains Indians and find themselves unwittingly drawn into battle alongside the native peoples. Also, their relations with the Indians are rather different; while they treat Colter with anything from vague tolerance to violence, Dunbar assimilates and rejects his world for theirs.
Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Perf. Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman. Orion, 1990. Vestal, Stanley. Mountain Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.