The True Account of 'The Revenant'

Although accounts of the real-life frontiersman who inspired the film is steeped in lore, we examine what made his story the thing of legends.
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Leonardo DiCaprio The Revenant Photo

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in 'The Revenant.' (Photo: Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

This week, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass in a new film about a 19th century frontiersman waging a brutal fight for survival. Fueled by a love for family and a need for revenge, it’s an unforgettable lesson on why you never bring a knife to a bear fight. Can’t wait for opening day? Here are the accounts that inspired The Revenant.

Born around the 1780s, there are precious few documented facts about Hugh Glass. By some accounts, he was a prisoner of the buccaneer Jean Lafitte and became a pirate on the high seas before escaping. Other accounts claim he was captured by the Pawnees and spent four years living as one of them. But no matter what was actually on his CV, it’s a widely accepted fact that around the age of 40, he joined a crew of fur trappers led by William Ashley and Andrew Henry. In 1823, the group journeyed up the Missouri River to the Rockies in search for beaver pelts. Very soon, however, the group of mountain men found more than they bargained for.

The group found themselves attacked by a party of Native Americans from the Arikara tribe, which left Hugh injured and over a dozen of his colleagues dead. Following the attack, the group ventured on. Months later, Glass was scouting ahead of his group, foraging for berries, when he stumbled on a grizzly and her two cubs. Legend has it that he fired a bullet into the giant bear. Unfazed, it smashed him with its claws, as Glass futilely defended himself with a knife. Glass’s teammates shot and killed the bear, but not before it slashed his face down to the bone and left a bloody trail of gashes along his body.

Hugh Glass Photo

Illustration of Hugh Glass and his legendary bear attack published at the time for a newspaper. (Photo: Author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Few of his friends expected Glass to survive the night, but he did. Much to their surprise he was still alive — but not moving — days later. Andrew Henry, however, fearing an attack by Indians told the group to press on to Yellowstone, paying two men to stay behind with Glass. Those men were John Fitzgerald (played in the film by Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (William Poulter). Cold and deep in Indian country,, the two grew anxious after a few days and left Glass to die, taking his weapons and supplies as they disappeared into the cold wilderness.

Resolute on exacting revenge on the deserters, Glass crawled back towards the Missouri River toward Fort Kiowa, surviving on a diet of berries and carrion. He recovered his strength at Fort Kiowa and then pushed on to Yellowstone where he planned to greet Fitzgerald and Bridger with the business end of a rifle.

When he finally caught up with the group, however, he decided to spare young Jim Bridger. Fitzgerald, in the meantime, had moved on, enlisting in the US Army. Legend has it that after hearing of Glass’s ordeal, the army ordered Fitzgerald to return Glass’s gun, but advised Glass to leave Fitzgerald unharmed as long as he was enlisted in the army.

Accounts for Glass’s knack for survival continued even after that grueling episode near the Grand River. During a fight with the Utes, he took an arrow in his spine, then traveled 700 miles before another mountain man could pull it out of Glass’s backbone. But in 1832, Glass’s story came to an end when he was ambushed and killed by the Arikaras, on the ice of the Yellowstone River. This time, the revenant would not rise from the dead, but his legend would live on forever.