At the very edge of the American Frontier, a hunter stares down a grizzly bear. Protecting her cubs, she charges the man down and delivers a prolonged and savage mauling, leaving him fighting for his life. People familiar with The Revenant will remember this gory scene – but it also actually really happened.
Tales of heroism and survival during the Western expansion of America are plentiful. Few, however, can hold a candle to that of Hugh Glass. The hunter, who died in 1833, has become almost legendary. But how did he earn this accolade? To find out, let’s take a trip back to 1783.
Glass was born in 1783 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an America that was less than ten years old. Aside from the fact that his parents were Irish immigrants, information about the future frontiersman’s adolescence is scant.
At the time that Glass was reaching adulthood, though, the American Frontier was pushing further west, opening up the country to trade, settlement and inevitable conflict. Given this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a young man might go on to seek his fortune in such places. However, the Pennsylvania native’s life of adventure actually reportedly began on the high seas.
Glass’ friend, fur trader George C. Yount, recounted stories about the former’s early life. He writes that Glass worked as a sailor on merchant ships in his 30s, but that changed when his ship suffered an attack from pirates. When he was given the ultimatum to either join them or die, he chose piracy. Glass then spent two years with the men, until eventually making his escape to modern-day Texas.
Glass reportedly swam to shore close to what is now Galveston, Texas, and was captured by the Pawnee tribe. He then spent several years living with them, and even married one of its members. And it was during this period that the ex-sailor picked up the hunting skills that later allowed him to enter the fur trade.
In 1823 Glass was hired by wealthy businessman William Henry Ashley to join a fur-trapping excursion along the Missouri River. Out in the woods, the group of trappers got to work catching animals and harvesting fur, while also evading the attention of hostile Native Americans. But it was west of the river, near the Shadehill Reservoir in Perkins County, South Dakota, where Glass would come face-to-face with his most challenging encounter to date.
While out in front of the other men scouting for food, Glass first set his eyes on the bear. And, of course, she saw him. What followed was the sort of brutal attack that would, no doubt, normally end with a well-fed grizzly. But not this time.
Hearing Glass’ screams, some of the trappers came to his aid. After shooting the bear dead, the men did their best to tend to his horrific wounds. He’d reportedly suffered a broken leg, a torn scalp, a punctured throat and gashes all over his body. Yet, somehow, he was still breathing. It was a miracle. However, his colleagues remained convinced Glass wouldn’t survive the coming night.
But survive is exactly what Glass did. Carried by the trapping party for two days, he continued to cling on to life. His survival, however, put the rest of the group in danger. The burden of carrying him was slowing their progress and impeding their ability to move silently through dangerous territory. So, the men made the decision to leave Glass behind.
The thinking was that Glass’ wounds were so severe, he would likely die regardless. This meant that continuing to carry him was foolhardy. However, two men volunteered to stay behind and bury him when the time came. As an incentive, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger were promised a bonus for their trouble.
Five days later, Glass was still alive, although blinking and breathing were his only discernible signs of life. Still convinced he was dying, though, Fitzgerald and Bridger decided they had waited long enough. They then lay him next to a stream, relieving the injured man of every weapon and bit of kit he owned, and left.
Glass, it turns out, wasn’t quite as close to death as Fitzgerald and Bridger thought. Able to reach water and feed himself with anything he could find, he eventually built up the strength to crawl. Glass then decided to make his way to Fort Kiowa in South Dakota, and wreak his revenge on the men who had abandoned him.
Glass’ targets, he knew, were headed to Fort Henry, one of the trapping company’s outposts in North Dakota. Rather than make a direct journey there, though, he decided he’d first make his way to Fort Kiowa. There, he could rest and recuperate before continuing his quest.
After spending several days hunkered down and feasting on buffalo meat left by wolves, Glass was finally able to walk. His progress was a little faster by this point, but it still took him six long weeks to make the nearly 300-mile journey to reach the fort.
After a couple of days rest at Fort Kiowa, Glass once again set out on a 250-mile journey in search of Fitzgerald and Bridger. He eventually reached Fort Henry on New Year’s Eve 1823, expecting to find the men who had abandoned him. Along the way, he was reportedly attacked by Native Americans from the Arikaras tribe, but survived with minimal injury.
Glass’ surprise upon arriving at Fort Henry was bitter-sweet. While Bridger was indeed holed up there, Fitzgerald was not. The tenacious hunter then made a surprising decision. Rather than killing the man he had come so far to exact his revenge on, he forgave him instead.
Meanwhile, Glass discovered that Fitzgerald had joined the army. Determined to find him, the intrepid hunter once again set out on foot. This time, his destination was Fort Atkinson in Nebraska. In June 1824 he arrived there, having survived another Native American attack, and finally cornered his prey. But the army wouldn’t allow a non-judicial killing on the base. Fitzgerald was ordered to return Glass’ rifle, while the latter warned that if he ever left the army, he would hunt him down.
After Glass’ epic adventure, he returned to full-time trapping. He died in 1833, after his hunting party was ambushed by Native Americans from the Arikara tribe near Fort Cass in Montana. It is believed he and a colleague were ambushed on the frozen Yellowstone River, with the assassins riding away with the hunter’s prized rifle. The intrepid trapper, it seems, had run out of luck.
Tales of Glass’ knack for survival became something of an American legend. The hunter’s life inspired songs, sculpture, novels and even an Oscar-winning portrayal by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Revenant. But, despite an ignominious death, his incredible life continues to echo through the centuries. He was a true testament to the depth of the human spirit and its capacity for survival, as well as our tenacity in the face of adversity.