Take a mountain man hundreds of miles from civilization, add a bear, subtract his gun, and what do you have? One epic tale of survival.
The odyssey of mountain man Hugh Glass, now immortalized in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film The Revenant, is probably the most epic personal saga ever recorded on the American frontier. Like a figure from mythology, Glass was a mighty hunter and warrior pitted against a monstrous beast and treacherous enemies. But there was no kingdom to save or princess to win. Horribly wounded and disfigured, Hugh Glass crawled, staggered, floated, and fought his way across 2,000 miles of frozen wilderness — for the sole purpose of getting his trusty rifle back and killing the two men who had robbed him and left him for dead.
The film is partially based on Michael Punke’s excellent historical novel The Revenant. But where Punke sticks closely to known facts and plausible conjecture, Iñárritu sentimentalizes the revenge story by inventing an added family motive for Glass and leading him to redemption. A shaggy, bearded, buckskin- and fur-clad Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the lead role, forging his way through the forested Canadian wilderness that stands in for the barren, windswept plains of Montana and the Dakotas.
We don’t know much about the real Hugh Glass. He was probably born in Pennsylvania between 1775 and 1780. According to the usual story told by mountain men and written down later by Phillip St. George Cooke and others, Glass went away to sea as a young man, became a ship’s captain, and was then captured by pirates working for the Louisiana buccaneer Jean Lafitte. Given a choice between death and working for Lafitte, Glass chose piracy and sailed for a year under the skull and crossbones.
Some say that he committed barbarous acts, but mostly Glass was known as a trustworthy and honorable man, if a little strange. One contemporary described him as “bold, daring, reckless and eccentric to a high degree; but was nevertheless a man of great talents and intellectual as well as bodily power. But his bravery was conspicuous beyond all his other qualities for the perilous life he led.”
In 1818, Glass and a companion escaped from Lafitte’s crew on Galveston Island and waded across the shallows to the Texas coast. Wary of the cannibalistic Karankawas, they went north, managing to evade the Comanches and the Kiowas only to be captured by Pawnees in present-day Kansas.
The Pawnees had a custom of piercing their captives with slivers of pitch pine and then igniting the wood, burning them alive. Glass apparently watched his companion die in this manner but saved himself by producing some cinnabar, prized for its use in making red war paint, which he had taken from the pirate ship. A chief took a liking to him, and for the next four years, he lived as a member of the Loup band of Pawnees, getting an education in wilderness survival and tribal warfare that would be invaluable once his real adventure got underway.
In 1822, the band visited St. Louis, and Glass opened a new chapter in his life. He signed up as a hunter and trapper with the Ashley-Henry Fur Company, which was mounting an expedition to Montana to harvest beaver pelts in the vast region known as the Upper Missouri, set amid the northern Great Plains and northern Rocky Mountains. There was a fortune in furs to be harvested if one could survive the inevitable Indian attacks and lesser perils like blizzards, avalanches, river crossings, grizzly bears, hunger, thirst, fever, and parasites.
The expedition began with a 1,500-mile keelboat journey up the Missouri River. In present-day South Dakota, they traded peaceably with the river-dwelling Arikaras before being attacked as soon as the deals were done. Twelve trappers were killed, and Glass and a dozen more were wounded. Three months later, the survivors set out on foot for the Yellowstone River, where a fur-trading fort some 300 miles away offered protection. They tried to be as stealthy as possible to avoid being discovered by another war party, but they also had to eat. That meant giving away their position every day or two by shooting a deer or a buffalo. The sound of a rifle shot carried well over a mile.
Glass had wandered off to hunt when he surprised a huge grizzly sow with cubs. He shot her as she charged but, as he must have known, even a .53 caliber rifle ball couldn’t stop a charging grizzly. Accounts of his mauling vary slightly, but all agree that Glass was “tore nearly all to peases,” as one mountain man later put it. In Punke’s novel, the bear raked him in the throat with her 6-inch claws and shredded his scalp, bit him on the back of the neck, shook him, and dredged her claws through the flesh of his back, shoulder, arm, and leg.
The other trappers, alerted by the shot and the screams, found Glass and the now-dead bear. They bandaged his wounds with torn strips of clothing and may have stitched him up. To their amazement, Glass was still breathing weakly through his slashed throat the next morning, so they made a litter out of branches and carried him west.
After three days by one account, six by another, with Glass still unable to move or speak, the expedition leader, Andrew Henry, made a speech to his men. With winter fast approaching, they could no longer afford to be slowed down by carrying the wounded trapper. Nor could they abandon him. So Henry offered extra pay to any two men who would stay with Glass until he died, then bury him and catch up.
The two men who accepted the offer are generally agreed to be John Fitzgerald, a disreputable sort who wanted the money, and a teenage Jim Bridger, who wanted to show his respect for Glass. The precise facts and details of what happened next have passed through too much oral history to be reliably accurate; ultimately, we must accept the Hugh Glass story as part-history and part-mythology.
According to legend, Fitzgerald and Bridger waited for Glass to die in a side canyon of the Grand River. They fetched him water from a spring, and he was able to get some of it down his throat. But his breathing was still labored, and after a few days, he developed a high fever. Fitzgerald decided that Glass had the “death sweats” and told Bridger it was high time for them to leave and catch up with the others. Bridger may or may not have protested, but he and Fitzgerald did leave Glass to die alone.
And here’s the kicker: They took his rifle, knife, tomahawk, flint, steel, powder, and lead. They may have reasoned to themselves that he would have no use for them now, so why let such useful weapons fall into Indian hands? But by removing his possessions, they also knew they were sentencing him to death if, by some miracle, he survived his wounds.
Despite his fever, Glass apparently was conscious of what was happening, though unable to speak. When the fever broke, he was able to pull down some buffalo berries from a bush. By crushing the berries and softening them with the spring water, he managed to get them down his ruined throat. The next day a fat rattlesnake came gliding in his direction, and he killed it with a rock, scraped and pounded the raw meat, softened it with water, and worked it, too, down his throat.
Walking was impossible, but Glass was now able to crawl, and he vowed that he wouldn’t stop until he caught up with Fitzgerald and Bridger and murdered them. As an unarmed quadruped, he knew there was no point following them directly west to the Yellowstone. First he had to get re-equipped, and that meant dragging himself to Fort Kiowa, 350 miles away in the opposite direction.
Vengeance drove him forward, one painful mile at a time. At one point in his long crawl, he managed to drive some wolves off a freshly killed buffalo calf, perhaps by making a fire with a bow drill and crawling toward them with a burning torch, as in Punke’s novel. Glass spent days drying strips of the meat and regaining his strength; afterward he was well enough to stagger and limp forward on two legs.
A traveling band of Sioux took pity on him, cleaned the maggots out of his festering back wounds, and took him to Fort Kiowa. There he equipped himself with a new rifle and outfit, and caught a ride up the Missouri river with a group of French-Canadian voyageurs — specialist canoe-men who ferried furs and supplies up and down the rivers. They were going to the Yellowstone, where he expected to find Fitzgerald and Bridger, kill them, and get his old, beloved rifle back.
After six weeks of paddling upstream, the voyageurs were attacked by the Arikaras. All but one were killed, and Glass managed to escape, perhaps because he was ashore hunting, or perhaps because he preferred the overland shortcut to Tilton’s Fort. Whatever the reason, Glass was helped by some Mandan warriors, who were at odds with the Arikaras.
Alone once again, he set off as the northern winter set in, determined to exact his vengeance. It took him more than a month in the most intense cold he had ever experienced to reach the new Fort Henry, situated at the mouth of the Big Horn River, some 100 miles upriver from its old location. The most common story has him arriving on New Year’s Eve, monstrously scarred and covered with frost. A revenant is someone returned from the dead, and that’s exactly how Glass appeared to the rest of his trapping brigade as he emerged from the frozen plains.
Fitzgerald wasn’t there. He had gone downriver and taken Glass’ trusty rifle with him. Jim Bridger was there, but now that the long-awaited moment of vengeance was at hand, the wide-eyed apologetic teenager looked too young to kill. Glass dressed him down verbally and rejoined the company until an opportunity to catch up with Fitzgerald presented itself. In late February, Andrew Henry sent Glass and four men to Fort Atkinson with letters for the post and instructed Glass to go on to St. Louis to deliver a message to his expedition’s backers: Operations had moved to the mouth of the Big Horn.
Glass and his new companions went south along the Powder River and then across country to the North Platte. Coming across a herd of buffalo, Glass started killing the big bulls so he could make bull boats from their hides stretched over willow branches. As he’d learned among the Pawnees, these round coracles were perfect for the shallow rivers of the Great Plains. In two bull boats, they floated down the North Platte, making good progress until an Arikara village came into view. Two trappers were killed in the attack, but once again Glass managed to escape — although he became separated from the other two survivors and lost his new Fort Kiowa rifle while swimming in the icy river.
Once again, he was weaponless and alone in a vast wilderness. But he knew that if he kept walking along the Platte to the Missouri he would eventually reach Fort Atkinson, some 400 miles away. And this time he had a knife, flint, and steel. He fed himself by overtaking newborn buffalo calves and killing them with his knife, and he was able to cook his meat and stay warm at night. He made it to Fort Atkinson without much difficulty, and there his extraordinary odyssey came to its unsatisfying conclusion.
Having failed to kill Jim Bridger out of kindheartedness, he now failed to kill John Fitzgerald for a more frustrating reason. Fort Atkinson was a U.S. Army outpost, and Fitzgerald was now an enlisted soldier under the protection of his commanding officer. There was no way for Glass to murder the thieving lowlife without being locked up in the fort’s jail for a good, long time. Glass did get his old rifle back, and, in Punke’s novel at least, he managed to put a pistol ball through Fitzgerald’s shoulder before heading back west to live the perilous life of a mountain man.
He roamed from Taos, New Mexico, to the Columbia River in Oregon, trapping beaver and making yet more hairbreadth escapes from Indian war parties. In the late 1820s, he developed a reputation as a loner who would ride off by himself into uncharted country and come out laden with furs. The last we hear of him is in 1833, back on the Yellowstone River in the company of other trappers.
He was walking along the frozen river with two companions, having just left the safety of Fort Cass, when they were surprised by a party of Arikara warriors. All three trappers were killed and scalped. Glass, then past 50, was buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Yellowstone, near present-day Big Horn, Montana. In 1833, it was about as far from civilization as you could get in America. In that sense, it makes a suitable resting place for the ex-pirate, ex-Pawnee, and mountain man extraordinaire.
From the January 2016 issue.