The story of Hugh Glass may well be the most epic personal saga ever recorded on the American frontier. Glass was a man of extraordinary courage and resilience, but it’s his vengefulness that leaves one in awe. Grievously wounded, he crawled, staggered, limped, swam, floated and fought his way through 3,000 miles of uncharted wilderness for the sole purpose of murdering the dirty sons of bitches who stole his rifle and left him for dead.
The scant historical records indicate that Hugh Glass was born in Pennsylvania around 1780. It seems almost certain that he went away to sea, became a ship’s captain, and was then captured by pirates working for the Louisiana buccaneer Jean Lafitte. Given a choice between immediate death and working for Lafitte, Glass chose the skull and crossbones – or so the story goes.
There are suggestions that he committed terrible acts in his year of piracy, perhaps under duress, but, in general, Glass comes across as an intelligent, honourable man, if a little feral and crazed. And one hundred per cent badass. A contemporary described Glass as “bold, daring, reckless and eccentric to a high degree, but nevertheless a man of great talents and intellectual, as well as bodily, power. But his bravery was conspicuous beyond all his other qualities for the perilous life he led.”
In 1818, Glass and a companion escaped from Lafitte’s crew on Galveston Island and waded across the shallow strait to the Texas shore. Wary of the cannibalistic Karankawas on the coast, they went north and managed to evade the fearsome Comanches on the Texas plains, only to be captured by Pawnees in the oceanic grasslands of what is now Kansas.
The Pawnees had a custom of piercing their captives with dozens of slivers of resinous pinewood, and then burning them alive like a Roman candle. Glass apparently saw his companion incinerated in this manner, and managed to save himself by producing some cinnabar, a prized red war paint. It was among the items that he’d taken with him from the pirate ship. As sometimes occurred with captives, he was adopted into the family of a chief, and spent the next four years as a member of the Loup band of Pawnees.
Relations between whites and Indians were often hostile on the frontier, but by no means always. Frontiersmen like Hugh Glass – who spent his entire career avoiding civilisation, immersed in wild nature – often found much in common with the tribes they sometimes battled against. They adopted Indian-style dress – moccasins, breechclouts, long hair, buckskin clothing – scalped their enemies like Indians, and sometimes spent long periods of time living with tribes. Since there were no white women in the far hinterlands, it was common for frontiersmen to take Indian wives, although most of these marriages were temporary unions of convenience for the white man.
In 1823, travelling with a delegation of Pawnees, Glass made his way to the bustling river city of St. Louis, Missouri, and opened a new chapter in his life. Answering a newspaper advertisement, he signed up as a hunter and trapper with the newly hatched Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which was mounting an expedition to harvest beaver pelts in the vast region known as the Far West – the northern Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin west of the Rockies.
It was an area the size of Western Europe, and most of it was still blank space on the map. Lewis and Clark had been across it, and a few hardy trappers and traders had ventured in deeper. It was known to contain a fortune in beaver furs, which were in high demand for the manufacture of gentlemen’s hats in Europe and the American cities. The problem was staying alive long enough to trap the beavers and get the furs to market.
The richest beaver streams were in the territory of the Blackfeet Indians, who killed white men on sight, and the entire region was in a semi-permanent state of intertribal warfare, with groups of warriors roaming around looking for horses to steal, and enemies to scalp. Anyone who was awake had their senses peeled for danger. Winter was another formidable obstacle. Blizzards swept down from the Arctic, sinking the temperature to 40 or 50 below zero, and making the mountains impassable with snow. Then there were the lesser hazards like avalanches, grizzly bears, raging rivers to cross, waterless stretches of high desert, parasites, fevers and rattlesnakes.
The 1823 expedition began with a 1,600-mile keelboat journey up the Missouri River, fighting the current all the way. In what is now South Dakota, the trappers were attacked by the Arikara tribe and lost 15 men, with Glass and several others wounded. Abandoning the river, the 11 or so survivors set out overland on foot for a trading fort some 200 miles away. They had no food supplies but that was not a concern. These shaggy buckskin-wearing trapper explorers, a type that became known as ‘mountain men’, almost never carried food, relying instead on their skill as hunters, and subsisting almost entirely on fresh and hastily dried meat. This too was a custom of the western tribes, who practiced no agriculture, and stored no food against future lean times.
The expedition leader, a terminally luckless man named Andrew Henry, assigned two hunters to travel ahead of the main group. Most historians think that Hugh Glass was not one of them, because these northern plains and mountains were a new environment to him, and other men had more experience hunting here. But Glass was a loner by nature and stubborn as they come, and it seems clear that he was off breaking orders, hunting by himself when he surprised a huge female grizzly bear with cubs.
Top: Canada – circa 1880. View of the Three Sisters, mountain peaks in the Rocky Mountains, near the Canmore, Alberta, Canada. © Ansel Adams / National Archives / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images.
She might have weighed 500 pounds, even 800 is not inconceivable. He shot her as she charged, but as he surely knew, even a .53 calibre rifle ball was unlikely to stop an enraged grizzly. She ripped his scalp to ribbons with her three-inch claws and shredded his throat. Accounts of the mauling vary slightly, but all agree that Glass was “tore nearly all to peases”, as one mountain man later recorded. There were deep lacerations on his back, his face, one leg, his chest and one shoulder and arm. In Michael Punke’s book, based on Glass’s life, she picks him up in her teeth and shakes him. Most versions of the story have the dead bear, having finally succumbed to the rifle wound, lying on top of the half-dead Glass.
The other trappers, alerted by the shot and the screams, found him and tended to his wounds as best they could, binding them up with torn-off strips of grimy shirt, perhaps sewing them shut with sinew. To their astonishment, Glass was still breathing through his gashed throat the next morning, so they constructed a litter for him out of branches and carried him west, like pallbearers – expecting him to die at any moment.
After two days by one account, six by another, with Glass still alive but unable to move or speak, the expedition leader Andrew Henry gathered his men and made a speech. They were far behind schedule, and winter was coming. They couldn’t afford to be slowed any longer by carrying Glass. Nor could they abandon him to die. So Henry offered a handsome purse of extra pay to any two volunteers who would wait with Glass until he died, and then bury him and catch up.
The two men who accepted the offer were John Fitzgerald, a disreputable gambler and knife-fighter, and a teenage boy named Jim Bridger, who would grow up to be one of the greatest mountain men of all. Fitzgerald was in it for the money, apparently, and Bridger wanted to show his respect for Hugh Glass. Again, the facts passed through many campfire tellings before they first appeared on paper, and ultimately we must accept the story of Hugh Glass as a blend of history and mythology.
The three of them camped by a spring in a side canyon above the Grand River. Glass was able to swallow water, but otherwise lay still, breathing feebly and still leaking blood into his improvised bandages. They were deep in hostile Indian country and their camp was barely concealed. Any war party on the well-travelled river trail would see their tracks, and they were sure to be outnumbered. After a few days, Glass developed a high fever and Fitzgerald decided that he was exhibiting the ‘death sweats’.
He told Bridger that Glass’s death was assured, that they could wait no longer, and that they would be taking his knife, his tomahawk, his ‘possible sack’ containing flint and steel for lighting fires, his powder and lead and his rifle. Glass would have no use for these things now, Fitzgerald might have said, so why leave them for the Indians? Glass was delirious with fever, unable to move or talk, but apparently conscious enough to know what was happening and livid with fury, as he watched his companions rob him of his beloved rifle and all other means of survival, leaving him there to die alone.
Fever is a sign that the body is fighting back against infection, and when the fever broke, Glass felt a little stronger. He was able to scoop water from the spring, and pull down some buffalo berries from a bush. By crushing the berries and softening them with water, he managed to get them down his ravaged throat. The next day a fat rattlesnake came gliding in his direction, and he bashed its head in with a rock, pounded the raw meat, and again softened it with water and worked it down his gullet.
The snake meat gave him some strength. Walking was impossible, but he was able to crawl, using one good arm and one good leg, and he vowed that he wouldn’t stop crawling until he caught up with Fitzgerald and Bridger. They had gone northwest overland to a trading fort on the Yellowstone River in present-day Montana. Glass knew that crawling, without weapons or equipment, there was no point following them directly. First he had to find supplies, and that meant dragging himself to Fort Kiowa, 350 miles away in the opposite direction.
During the course of his long crawl, he dug up roots to eat, and then managed to drive some wolves off a freshly killed buffalo calf, perhaps by throwing sticks or rocks at them, perhaps by starting a fire with whirling sticks, and then crawling towards the wolves with a burning brand. He lay there for days, gorging himself on the meat, resting, healing, gorging again. Afterwards he was well enough to stagger forward on two legs. As homo erectus, he was also able to throw rocks and chunks of wood at rabbits, frogs and other small game.
He encountered a travelling band of Sioux who took pity on him, cleaned the maggots out of his festering back wounds, and took him to Fort Kiowa. Like most of the western tribes, the Sioux were already dependent on the manufactured goods that fur traders brought into their territory: rifles, bullets, whiskey, steel knives and tomahawks, cooking pots and cloth, and Indian women couldn’t get enough beads and mirrors. So an uneasy peace prevailed at the trading forts, with the tribes bringing in buffalo hides, beaver pelts and other furs, and exchanging them for factory-made goods from Europe.
NOW HE SET OFF ALONE INTO THE ONSET OF THE NORTHERN WINTER, DETERMINED TO REACH THE YELLOWSTONE AND EXACT HIS MURDEROUS REVENGE.
Hugh Glass reequipped himself on credit at Fort Kiowa with a new rifle, knife, heavy blanket, flint, steel and a few other items, and almost immediately caught a ride up the Missouri River with a group of French-Canadian voyageurs – specialist canoe-men who ferried furs and supplies up and down the rivers. They were going towards the fort on the Yellowstone where he expected to find Fitzgerald and Bridger.
After several weeks of paddling upstream, they were ambushed by the Arikaras. All of the voyageurs were killed, but Glass managed to escape with the help of some Mandan Indians, who were at odds with the Arikara. The story of Hugh Glass and his hairsbreadth escapes from death was not just preserved in the campfire stories of mountain men, but it also features in the oral tradition of the Sioux, the Mandan and other Native American tribes. And stripped to the essence, it’s the kind of story that people all over the world have told at their campfires, and turned into mythology: the mighty hunter and warrior pitted against a monstrous beast and treacherous enemies.
Now he set off alone into the onset of the northern winter, determined to reach the Yellowstone and exact his murderous vengeance. It took him several weeks, in the most intense cold he had ever experienced, and the usual telling of the story has him arriving on New Year’s Eve like an apparition, monstrously scarred and covered with hoar frost. A revenant is a person returned from the dead, and that’s exactly how Hugh Glass appeared to the rest of his trapping brigade.
To his bitter disappointment, Fitzgerald had gone downriver with Glass’s old beloved rifle, but Jim Bridger was there. Now that the object of his vengeance was in plain sight, he looked too young to kill. Glass dressed him down verbally, and headed straight back out into the frozen wilderness to track down Fitzgerald. The expedition leader, Andrew Henry, sent four men with him, with instructions to go all the way to St. Louis and deliver a message to the expedition’s financial backers: ‘Things not going so well, holed up for winter with no horses and span no furs.’
The five men went overland until they came across a buffalo herd. Glass started killing the big bulls, then showed the others how to make bull boats – floating coracles fashioned from willow branches and buffalo hides, perfect for the shallow rivers of the Great Plains. It was March now. Snow was melting into the rivers and they made good progress until they were attacked by the Arikaras. Two of his companions were killed, but Hugh Glass managed to conceal himself and then escape, although he became separated from the other two survivors, and lost his Fort Kiowa rifle while swimming in the icy river.
Once again, he was weaponless and alone in a vast uncharted wilderness. The nearest fort was 400 miles away. Navigating by the stars, overtaking newborn buffalo calves and butchering them with his knife, he set out overland. He still had his flint and steel, and he felt quite well off compared to what he’d gone through on his long crawl. Without much difficulty, he found his way to Fort Atkinson in present-day Nebraska, and there his extraordinary adventure came to its unsatisfactory conclusion.
Vengefulness had driven him for 3,000 miles and, having failed to kill young Jim Bridger out of kind-heartedness, he now failed to kill Tom Fitzgerald for a very different reason. Fort Atkinson was a US army outpost and Fitzgerald was now an enlisted soldier under the protection of his commanding officer. There was no way to murder the no-good, thieving son of a bitch without going straight into the fort’s jail for a long time. Glass did manage to get his rifle back, and some say he managed to put a pistol ball through Fitzgerald’s shoulder before resuming his wild, itinerant and perilous life as a mountain man.
He stayed away from those northern winters for a while. Basing himself in Taos, New Mexico, he trapped beavers in the southern Rockies, and then further west in Utah and the Great Basin, and then all the way west to Oregon. In 1825, he was ambushed by some Shoshones, saw his colleagues die, and again managed to escape – this time with a metal arrowhead embedded in his spine. It stayed there for 700 miles as he rode back to Taos, where another trapper gave him a beaker of whiskey and cut out the arrowhead with a straight razor.
In the late 1820s, already famed as the ultimate buckskin badass, Hugh Glass developed a reputation as a mysterious loner, who would head off by himself into the wildest, most remote country he could find. He did that for a few years, and then came back into trapper society, such as it was. The last we hear of him is in 1833, and he was back on the Yellowstone, where he reappeared as he had on New Year’s Eve 10 years previously. With two companions he left the safety of Fort Cass and walked down the frozen river into an ambush of Arikara warriors, who killed and scalped all three of them.
Glass was in his early 50s, and his long streak of luck had finally run out. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Yellowstone River, which seems a suitable resting place for a man who lived as far from civilisation as it was possible to get. He died at the zenith of the mountain man era, when the pristine wilderness looked eternal, and so did high prices for beaver pelts. He never had to adjust to the unwelcome new reality of the 1840s, when gentlemen’s hat fashions changed, and the beaver were nearly trapped out anyway, and the mountain men had to find new ways to make a living.
They became guides to the wagon trains of pioneers heading to California and Oregon. They became scouts for the army. They went native and married into Indian tribes. They became horse traders and cattle drovers, and many drank themselves to death in frontier saloons. Almost without exception they pined for the old days, when their lives were in constant peril, when they almost froze to death, when they got so hungry that they boiled and ate their moccasins. Why? Because they had lived with absolute freedom in a wild and magnificent place, and that was all they ever wanted.