“Left for dead” are three words you don’t ever want to be associated with your name. Same goes for “mauled by grizzly,” or “crawled 200 miles.” In 1823, fur trapper Hugh Glass tried all three phrases on for size.
Glass, prior to experiencing the above horrors, was hired as a trapper by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company outfit in 1822. The company was founded early that year by Brigadier General William Ashley of the Missouri Militia. Ashley’s personal economic outlook was, well, not great. Ashley had hoped to enter politics after his military career ended. But to do that he needed a lot of money, and to raise the money he needed an idea. Ashely had a lightbulb moment: He’d gather 100 men to explore the Missouri River and set up fur trapping and trading routes north of St. Louis and to the great wide open west. Ashley quickly pulled together a crew and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company—more commonly known as Ashley’s Hundred—was born. And so entered Mr. Glass.
Ashley’s Hundred included men who had a big impact on 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 rolled through, drawing maps along the way. Ashley’s men were also largely responsible for massive drops in the western beaver populations. The trappers did their jobs well, Glass among them.
Glass, like many hardscrabble early Americans who were drawn to the west to seek fortune, and adventure, and, well, whatever else might come their way, was born in the east, in his case, Pennsylvania. He joined Ashley’s Hundred to trap along the Missouri River as it flowed through South Dakota toward the Yellowstone.
Glass was respected among his peers as a hard worker and a skilled trapper. Within a year, he was scouting leads, which occasionally put him in direct confrontation with unsuspecting wildlife. This ended up being an unfortunate and nearly fatal promotion.
On one such lead, while poking around for signs of beaver activity, Glass startled a mother grizzly bear with two cubs in tow. The enraged mom rushed Glass and mauled him nearly to the point of death. Somehow Glass managed to fight the bear off long enough for two of his companions, men named John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, to arrive as reinforcements. Together, they killed the bear. Glass was in a bad way, having suffered a broken leg and deep lacerations exposing parts of his ribs to the mountain air. He appeared done for and his colleagues were told by their superiors to stay by his side until he died.
Fitzgerald and Bridger even began to dig a grave for Glass before suddenly taking flight to join the rest of the trapping party, leaving Glass for dead. They’d later claim a group of aggressive Arikara Indians had scared them off. Glass was, however, very much alive. What happened next for the suffering trapper was one of the most 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 such a pain in the ass. Regardless, Glass’ tale quickly took on the form of legend, and writers were too enthused to prevent themselves from polishing his story a bit. The first account of Glass’s adventures 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 based on Glass, in 1954. And in 1970, Richard Harris starred in the film, Man in the Wilderness.
Here is what (maybe) happened. Glass splinted his broken leg himself and cut off the bear’s hide to wear as a camouflage through hostile native territory. Unable to walk at more than a hobble, Glass 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, bare with us here, eat his wounded flesh.
Glass’ destination, Fort Kiowa, was 200 miles away. Though the Arikara Indians of the region were hostile, Glass was apparently aided along his route by other native groups more amenable to his passing. They provided food, fresh water, and some rudimentary weapons for protection. Glass hobbled and crawled his way to the Cheyenne River over a grueling period of 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 in the film starring 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 sought out his former partners, but once he finally caught up with Bridger, he was merciful. Bridger was just 19 when he left Glass to die. As for Fitzgerald, by the time Glass 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 enduring one of the greatest survival challenges of all time, Glass’ experience didn’t alter the restless frontier mentality that guided his life. He was killed in 1833 by a band of Arikara Indians, while on a trapping expedition on the Yellowstone River. A frontiersman till the brutal end.