Inspired by true events, The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the story of survival and revenge on the frontier. Read on to learn about the real story of Hugh Glass, the man who inspired it all.
Credit: Paul Kisselev
Stories abound of the prodigious experiences of the mountain men—the larger-than-life fur trappers and wilderness explorers of the early 19th century. None, however, surpasses the saga of Hugh Glass’s remarkable fight for life after surviving a grizzly bear attack. It is one of the most fantastic tales to emerge from the entire Westward Movement. In fact, it inspired the recent Leonardo diCaprio film, The Revenant. Hollywood took liberties with the story, but as near as oral tradition can be trusted, what follows is the real story of Hugh Glass, the true story of The Revenant.
Glass’s life before becoming a mountain man is shrouded in mystery. Some versions have him sailing as a pirate under the notorious Jean Lafitte. It is a known fact, however, that he joined the Ashley-Henry fur-trapping brigade when he was around 40, older than middle-aged for his time. The Ashley-Henry party left St. Louis in the spring of 1823, making its way up the Missouri River to the “Shining Mountains”—the Rockies—in search of beaver pelts. Within a short time, they were set upon by a party of Arikara, leaving 15 of their number dead and “Old Hugh,” as Glass was called, wounded in the leg.
By summer, the trappers were proceeding cautiously overland, their eyes peeled for signs of hostiles. And there were other perils in the mountains that threatened to snuff out a man’s life, and grizzlies—“Old Ephraim,” as the trappers termed them—ranked high on the list. A full-grown grizzly stood upwards of 12 feet tall, and weighed some three-quarters of a ton. Even if a man survived a bear attack, he was usually left with physical reminders of the encounter. The legendary Jedediah Smith himself had come out second-best in a contest with an angry grizzly, leaving him with several broken ribs, and much of his scalp and one ear hanging by a strip of skin. He calmly supervised the reassembling of his face with rawhide stitches, but he would bear the reminders of the encounter till his death.
At this juncture, the lack of documentation means we’re relying on oral tradition for the rest of the story. According to legend, Hugh Glass—his leg now healed—was scouting ahead of the brigade near the forks of the Grand River, when he entered a thicket to hunt for berries. He immediately stumbled upon a sow grizzly and her two cubs. As the bear reared upright and charged, Glass fired directly into her chest. His single-shot weapon now useless, he took to his feet, but the bear—apparently unfazed by the shot—swiftly overtook him, and brought her claws down on the hapless trapper.
Although he hacked away with his knife, he was no match for the creature. By the time Glass’s comrades came to his aid, the animal had slashed his face to the bone, and opened long, gaping wounds on his arms, legs, and torso. The trappers fired several balls into the creature, finally bringing it down beside the inert Glass.
Glass was barely alive. His breathing was labored, and he was bleeding profusely from a number of grave wounds. The other trappers made him as comfortable as they could, expecting him to expire at any moment. However, when he survived the night—and the next few days—without any perceptible improvement, Major Henry decided that the party had to move on, to avoid the possibility of Indian attack. He offered to pay two men $40 each—the equivalent of two or three months’ pay—to remain with Glass until he died, and to then catch up with the rest of the party.
The two men who accepted the job were John Fitzgerald, a seasoned trapper, and a youth named Jim Bridger. As their fellows moved out, the two set up a cold camp, settled into their buffalo robes, and waited for the old man to die. But Glass held on, breathing fitfully. After nearly a week, Fitzgerald grew desperate to catch up to the brigade. He convinced young Bridger that there was nothing to be gained by further endangering their lives, and—after taking Glass’s rifle, knife, and all his “possibles—they left him to die alone.
Incredibly, Glass regained consciousness. He rallied enough to realize his situation, and after dragging himself to water at a nearby spring, and snagging a few buffalo berries from a low-hanging bush, he began to drag his torn body towards salvation—which, in this case, was Fort Kiowa, a trading post some 250 miles distant. He had neither the means nor the strength to hunt for food, so he sustained himself on roots and the rotting meat of old kills he came upon as he crawled through the dry, scrubby plains of present-day South Dakota. At one point, he found a rattlesnake sated and swollen from a recent kill, and after smashing its head with a rock, soaked the meat in water and fed himself.
Glass calculated he was covering a mile a day at a crawl, and knew that he had to do better if he was to survive. He stood for the first time since the bear attack after seeing a pack of wolves bring down and feed on a buffalo calf. Realizing that without its meat he would die, he struggled to his feet and, leaning on a long stick, screamed at the wolves until they left their kill. Glass stayed alongside the calf for several days, gorging on its organs and flesh, gradually regaining some of his strength. When the meat turned so rancid that it was no longer edible, Glass continued on his journey, walking upright and making 10 miles a day.
On his trek, he narrowly escaped death in a buffalo stampede, and was nearly discovered by a passing band of Arikara. Incredibly, after seven weeks in the wilderness, he staggered into Fort Kiowa, to the amazement of the fort trader. Keeping him alive against all odds was the unquenchable urge to live, his wilderness skills, and the unflagging desire for vengeance. He was determined to exact retribution from the two men who had taken all he possessed and left him to die in the wild.
After further recuperation, Hugh joined an expedition to the Mandan villages, where he was told that the Ashley-Henry company was wintering at Fort Henry. Knowing that Fitzgerald and Bridger would number among the party, he set off for the fort in mid-December. On New Year’s Eve, as a storm raged outside the walls, the reveling trappers within responded to a muffled pounding on the gate. They opened it to a wraithlike, ice-encrusted, nearly frozen Hugh Glass.
The holiday merriment ceased abruptly as Glass rasped, “Where’s Fitzgerald and Bridger?”
He was told that Fitzgerald had quit and joined the Army as a scout, which made him a federal employee, and untouchable. For Glass to kill him now would be to invite his own execution. Bridger, however, was skulking in a corner, overcome with guilt and shame. Seeing how young the boy was, and allowing for the fact that he had been strongly influenced by Fitzgerald, Glass spared the youth’s life—after giving him a hearty chewing-out. Jim Bridger took the lesson to heart, and went on to become one of most celebrated trappers, guides, and scouts in the West.
Hugh Glass returned to his trapper’s life, and his legend spread throughout the nation. The account was, no doubt, improved upon over time, reflecting the old Western maxim, “Any story you can’t improve on just ain’t worth the tellin’!” Old Hugh ultimately “went under” 10 years later, in an Arikara attack. His old enemies finally killed and scalped the old trapper, but not before his name had found an honored place in the pantheon of Western legends.