“Left for dead” are three words you never want to follow too closely behind your name. A few other unfortunate, three-word phrases also come to mind, like “attacked by grizzly,” “stalked by natives,” and “crawled 200 miles.” In 1823, fur trapper Hugh Glass tried them all on for size.
In 1822, General William Ashley’s personal economic outlook was none to shiny. He intended to enter politics after his military career. For that he needed money, and to raise money he needed an idea. His idea was to gather 100 men to explore the Missouri River, and set up fur trapping and trading routes to the north of St. Louis and to the west. He pulled together his crew and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company – more commonly known as Ashley’s Hundred – was born.
Ashley’s Hundred included men who would shape the cultural history of the West. As a unit, they were credited with exploring the Green River Valley from Wyoming south through most of Utah – nearly 50 years before John Wesley Powell’s expedition would map the region. They were also largely responsible for massive drops in the western beaver populations.
The early 1800s were rough and tumble, with manifest destiny the driving influence behind men and women who were seeking to make their fortune and establish their own lives and legacies in the West. One such man was Glass, who was born in Pennsylvania and joined Ashley’s Hundred in 1822 to ascend the Missouri River through South Dakota and over to Yellowstone.
Glass was respected among his peers as a hard worker and a skilled trapper. Within a year, he was scouting leads. During one such lead, he startled a grizzly bear with two cubs. The mother bear attacked, leaving Glass with a broken leg, deep lacerations, and wounds open down to the rib bones in his back and sides. Somehow he managed to fight off the bear long enough for two of his companions – John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger – to catch up. Together, they killed the bear. Glass was in bad shape, and his colleagues were told to stay by his side until he died.
Fitzgerald and Bridger began to dig a grave for Glass, when they claimed a group of aggressive Arikara Indians scared them off. They took flight to regain the rest of their group, leaving Glass for dead. What followed for Glass – who was still very much alive – was one of the epic survival stories of all time.
Or, at least, we think it is. Glass didn’t leave much of a paper trail. When he appears in his superiors’ notes or journals, it’s usually because he was difficult to deal with. Regardless, his tale quickly took on the form of legend, and writers and media weren’t shy about fanning the sparks of his story into flame. The first account came in 1825, in a paper called The Port Folio (see it here). In 1915, John Neihardt’s poem “The Song of Hugh Glass” was published. Frederick Manfred wrote Lord Grizzly, a novel, in 1954. And in 1970, Richard Harris starred in the film, Man in the Wilderness.
Glass splinted his broken leg and cut off a bear hide to wear as a camouflage through hostile native territory. Unable to walk at more than a hobble, he crawled much of the ground he covered. The wounds on his back were festering, so to ward off gangrene he would lie on downed trees and allow maggots to eat his wounded flesh.
His destination, Fort Kiowa, was 200 miles away. Though the Arikara Indians of the region were hostile, Glass was aided along his route by other friendly native tribes. They provided food, fresh water, and some rudimentary weapons for protection. He hobbled and crawled his way to the Cheyenne River over a period of approximately six weeks, but he didn’t stop there. Driven by his hunger for revenge on Bridger and Fitzgerald, Glass crafted a homemade raft and floated the Cheyenne River back to Fort Kiowa.
What happened next, despite the tale told by Leonardo DiCaprio, was anticlimactic.
“This has been the most tricky thing for dramatists,” Jon T. Coleman, a professor at Notre Dame University, told the Telegraph. “Everyone gets tripped up trying to explain why he was so driven to destroy the men who left him, but then decides to show mercy and doesn’t end up killing anybody.”
Glass did seek out his former partners, but when he caught up with Bridger, he gave mercy – Bridger was just 19 at the time of the abandonment. As for Fitzgerald, by the time he tracked him down, the man had joined the U.S. Army, and Glass reckoned the penalty for killing a soldier was too high. He did get his rifle back from Fitzgerald, though.
Despite one the greatest survival challenges of all time, Glass’ experience didn’t alter the frontier mentality that guided his life, and he was killed in 1833 by a band of Arikara Indians, while on a trapping expedition on the Yellowstone River.