Legend of Hugh Glass

   If you happened to see the 2015, Leonardo DiCaprico film "The Revenant"  about Hugh Glass, you had to sit through two hours of pure bullshit. It's not that this was a lousy film, the photography and raw meat scenes were great. But ... the film had absolutely no correlation with reality.  Too bad, the real story is much better.

  Just forget, for a moment, that South Dakota doesn't have any mountains like those depicted in the movie.  Also, that the real Hugh Glass story took place out on the prairie.  And, finally, the real Hugh Glass, as far as known, never killed anybody.  There's much, much more, but this isn't a movie critique. Western South Dakota

   In point of fact, the real story of Hugh Glass ranks as one of the most remarkable stories of survival in American history. So much so, that Hugh Glass became a legend in his own time.

    Little is actually known about Glass the person. It was said that he was a former pirate who gave up his life at sea to travel to the West as a scout and fur trapper. Exactly when is unknown.

    Glass is believed to have been born in Philadelphia around 1783. He had already been in the Western wilderness for several years when he signed on for an expedition up the Missouri River in 1823 with the company of William Ashley and Andrew Henry. The expedition used long-boats similar to those used by Lewis and Clark 19 years earlier to ascend the Missouri as far as the Grand River near present-day Mobridge, SD. There Glass along with a small group of men led by Henry started overland toward Yellowstone.

    At a point about 12 miles south of Lemmon, SD, now marked by a small monument, Glass surprised a grizzly bear and her two cubs while scouting for the party. He was away from the rest of the group at the time and the grizzly attacked him before he could fire his rifle. Using only his knife and bare hands, Glass wrestled the full-grown bear to the ground and killed it, but in the process he was badly mauled and bitten.
Hugh Glass
    His companions, hearing his screams, arrived on the scene to see a bloody and badly maimed Glass barely alive and the live bear lying on top of him. They shot the bear in the head and uncovered Glass's mangled body. They bandaged his wounds the best they could and then waited for him to die.

   The party was in a hurry to get to Yellowstone, so Henry asked for volunteers to stay until Glass was dead and then bury him. John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger agreed and immediately began digging the grave. After three days Glass was still alive when Fitzgerald and Bridger panicked as a band of hostile Indians was seen approaching. The two men picked up Glass's rifle, knife and other equipment and dumped him into the open grave. They threw the bearskin over him and shoveled in a thin layer of dirt and leaves, leaving Glass for dead.

    Glass did not die. After an unknown time, he regained consciousness to a very grim situation. He was alone and unarmed in hostile Indian territory. He had a broken leg and his wounds were festering. His scalp was almost torn away and the flesh on his back had been ripped away so that his rib bones were exposed. The nearest help was 200 miles away at Ft. Kiowa, a fur trading post. His only protection was the bearskin hide.

    Glass set his own broken leg and on September 9, 1823, began crawling south overland toward the Cheyenne River about 100 miles away. Fever and infection took their toll and frequently rendered him unconscious. Once he passed out and awoke to discover a huge grizzly standing over him. According to the legend, the animal licked his maggot-infested wounds. This may have saved Glass from further infection and death. Glass survived mostly on wild berries and roots. On one occasion he was able to drive two wolves from a downed bison calf and eat the raw meat.
    According to Glass's own account he was driven by revenge. He told others that the only thing that kept him going was the thought of killing the men who had left him for dead.Missouri River As
              It Once Looked

    It took Glass two months to crawl to the Cheyenne River. There he built a raft from a fallen tree and allowed the current to carry him downstream to the Missouri River and then on to Ft. Kiowa, a point about four miles north of the present-day Chamberlain.

    After he regained his health, which took many months, Glass did indeed set out to kill the two men who had left him for dead. He found Bridger at a fur trading post on the Yellowstone River but didn't kill him because Bridger was only 19 years old. Glass later found Fitzgerald but didn't kill him either because Fitzgerald had joined the Army.

    Glass eventually returned to the Upper Missouri where he died in 1833 in a battle with hostile Arikaras Indians. As with many mountain men of the era, Glass himself wasn't much of a talker. However the story of his trek was recounted far and wide among other frontiersmen and even the native American tribes. The story needed no embellishment, but at least one version (false) had Glass cutting out the still-beating hearts of the men who left him for dead. Another claimed (again, falsely) that Glass forevermore carried Bridger's and Fitzgerald's scalps on his belt. In truth, Glass may have simply forgiven the men who had left him to die.

    Before the film "The Reverant", the story of Hugh Glass had been made into another film "A Man in the Wilderness" in 1971 staring Richard Harris and John Huston, which is a moderately accurate film. A novel, "Lord Grizzly" also recounts and embellishes the story.

    There's no evidence that Hugh Glass ever visited the Black Hills, although he certainly did know of them. As early as 1828 stories of gold in the Hills had begun to circulate, but Glass was a trapper and trader, not a gold seeker so he probably had little interest. Some accounts suggest that Glass may have been part of party that passed near the Black Hills in 1831 and may have visited the Hills briefly at that time. There's no way to know if this is true.

    If you happen to be in South Dakota, you can see a monument to Hugh Glass (pictured above) that is located on the shores of the Shadehill Reservoir southwest of Shadehill, SD. The site of Ft. Kiowa is underwater in Lake Sharpe, the reservoir behind the Big Bend Dam.  

    Books about Hugh Glass include: "Hugh Glass" by Bruce Bradley (1999 ISBN 0966900502) and "The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man" by John Myers Myers (1976 ISBN 0803258348).

Trivia #1: The Missouri River of today looks nothing like the Missouri of Hugh Glass' time.  Most of the river in South Dakota consists of huge lakes behind dams. The river picture in this article is of one of the few stretches of the Missouri River that still resemble the river as it would have looked in the time of Hugh Glass.

Trivia #2: Although it is generally conceded that Glass crawled all the way to the Cheyenne River, that may have been and exaggeration. It's possible, some say even likely, that he only crawled as far as the Moreau River and floated downstream from there. Still, a not-insignificant feat.

Trivia #3: In the popular imagination, "mountain men" of the early West are thought of as "loners" facing vast obstacles alone. In truth, these early trappers generally traveled in groups of 15 to 45 or more men. They would set up camp somewhere in the trapping area and, only then, venture alone the short distances to their traps. These groups were organized as "companies".

Trivia #4: Early Western travelers rarely encountered hostile native Americans. For the most part, relations were cordial with just a few notable exceptions.

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