Hugh Glass Biography

Explorer, Folk Hero(c. 1783–1833)
Hugh Glass was an American frontiersman, explorer, and fur trapper. His story of survival following a bear attack became legend and inspired the films 'Man in the Wilderness' (1971) and 'The Revenant' (2015).

Synopsis

Frontiersman Hugh Glass was born in Pennsylvania in the 1780s. In 1823, he signed up for a fur-trading expedition. On the trip he was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead but he survived. This story of his attack and survival has become legend and made Glass an American West folk hero. His life has also been portrayed in two feature-length films: Man in the Wilderness (1971) and The Revenant (2015).

Early Life

Hugh Glass was born in Pennsylvania in the 1780s to Scotch-Irish parents who emigrated from present-day Northern Ireland to America in the 1700s. Much about his early life is unknown. Some accounts demonstrate his strength and valor, such as the story that he was captured by pirate Jean Lafitte off the coast of Texas in 1816 but escaped by swimming to shore near what is present-day Galveston, Texas. It is likely, however, that much about his life has been greatly embellished. Some have speculated that following his time as a pirate he lived with the Pawnee Indians and had a wife and child, although this has never been verified. What is known about Glass is that he was a frontiersman and explorer.

Fur-Trading Expedition and Bear Attack

In 1823, Glass joined a fur-trading expedition that had begun a year earlier backed by William Henry Ashley, the co-owner of Henry & Ashley Company which would later become the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The crew (now dwindled from 100 to 30) departed in keelboats on the Missouri River in St. Louis in March. After several fatal run-ins with poachers, including the Arikara and Mandan Indians, the remaining 15 crew members were battered and exhausted. In late August, Glass was hunting ahead of the group and was severely mauled by a grizzly bear near present-day Lemmon, South Dakota in the Grand River Valley. 

Glass survived the attack but he was left badly injured. Accounts indicate that he had a broken leg, a ripped scalp, a punctured throat, and was unable to move so the crew built a stretcher (litter) and carried him along their journey. However, after two days, the leaders of the expedition did not believe that Glass would survive so they left him for dead under the supervision of two men, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, who were to give him a proper burial after his death in exchange for a $40 bonus each (the equivalent of several months’ pay). 

Left for Dead and Fight to Survive

Five days after the crew departed from them, Glass was still alive but his caretakers, Fitzgerald and Bridger, were growing anxious. Certain that Glass was near death (his only signs of life were eye movement and breathing) and fearing another Indian attack, the two decided to leave Glass and meet up with the crew. They took his tools (gun, knife, tomahawk, fire making kit) and left him. But Glass mustered the strength to survive and began crawling through the forest, foraging for food, and regaining his strength. By mid-October, nearly two months after his attack, Glass arrived at Fort Kiowa, near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, having traversed some 200–300 miles (322–483 km) on his own.

Hugh Glass sculpture photo courtesy of John Lopez Studio

(Photo: Sculpture of Hugh Glass courtesy of artist John Lopez)

Dangerous Life & Death on the Frontier

Just a few days after arriving in Fort Kiowa, Glass resumed fur-trapping. Some say he set out to exact revenge on Fitzgerald and Bridger although much of that is speculative. Whatever the case, he traveled throughout the Rockies on various expeditions for the next decade or so and after multiple confrontations with Indians, he was attacked and killed by the Arikara Indians in 1833 near Fort Cass, present-day Treasure County, Montana, on the ice of the Yellowstone River.

The Making of a Legend

The first published account of Glass’ survival story was written by James Hall, a lawyer and aspiring writer, who published his versions of the events in a Philadelphia newspaper with the title “The Missouri Trapper” in 1824. Afterwards, the “story” (and accompanying embellishments) began popping up in newspapers and books everywhere, making it difficult to sort fact from fiction. Glass has been compared to other frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson, whose stories are romanticized in the ideology of manifest destiny and the landscape of the American West. Glass's incredible survival story was brought to the big screen twice, in the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness and in 2015's The Revenant, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass. DiCaprio won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal.

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