Although some sources indicate that he was born in Kentucky, John L. Hatcher, frontiersman, was probably born in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He entered the fur trade at St. Louis and became a noted hunter, trapper, and trader for Bent, St. Vrain, and Company. On one of his earlier trading trips he made contact with the Kiowas, who reportedly adopted him into the tribe. As an employee of Bent's Fort, Hatcher made several trips down the so-called Chihuahua Trail into Mexico to buy and sell horses and mules and ranged as far north as the North Platte River. He soon won a reputation as a yarn spinner, a dead shot, and a fearless diplomat in his dealings with Indians, who gave him the name "Freckled Hand."
Hatcher acted as a hunter and guide for government exploring parties and military expeditions. In 1845 he and Caleb Greenwood, another Bent employee, accompanied Lt. James W. Abert's scientific reconnaissance from Bent's Fort to the Canadian River. In his account, Abert noted Hatcher's expert marksmanship and ability as an interpreter. After the Comanches and Kiowas were assured that Abert's men were not hostile, Hatcher and Greenwood left the expedition at Bent's Trading House (Adobe Walls) on the Canadian and made their way back to Bent's Fort. After the Taos Rebellion in early 1847, Hatcher was among the volunteers recruited by William Bent to avenge the murder of his brother Charles, who had been appointed territorial governor of New Mexico. Hatcher participated in the trial and hanging of the "revolutionaries" at Taos. In 1850 Hatcher served as a guide for Colonel Collier's party in New Mexico, and in 1851 he provided data for Lt. John G. Parke, who was compiling a map of the little-known country south of the Arkansas River.
After seventeen years' residence in New Mexico, Hatcher left Taos with fifteen companions on January 29, 1853, and drove a flock of sheep over the California trail via Fort Laramie and South Pass to Placerville, where they arrived in June. Apparently Hatcher's reputation preceded him, for the Placerville Herald stated that his name was "as familiar and renowned in the vicinity of Santa Fe and Taos as that of Kit Carson [Christopher H. Carson], his old friend and companion." After returning to New Mexico over the Gila Trail from Los Angeles in December, Hatcher spent several years as a trader and freighter on the Santa Fe Trail. In 1858 he is reported to have single-handedly prevented 300 Comanche warriors, led by Chief Old Wolf, from attacking his small caravan near Wagon Mound by holding a knife to the chief's head until all the young braves had ridden off.