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Hugh Glass Mountain man
Wild west zombie

‘Revenant’ tale intertwines with Montana history

  • 9 min to read

For a guy with such a fragile name, Hugh Glass must have seemed unbreakable.

Shot twice and mauled by a grizzly bear, the mountain man made famous in the book and acclaimed movie “The Revenant” grew to mythological proportions in his era. Yet after cheating death so many times, and under such unusual circumstances, in real life his adventures were ended on the Yellowstone River, just east of Billings, in 1833.

"He was quite a character," said Jay Buckley, an associate professor of History at Brigham Young University, who is familiar with Glass' story. "We don't know a ton about that era, but we wouldn't know anything about Hugh Glass if he hadn't been attacked by a bear."

Glass was a fur trapper in the heydays of the mountain man, the 1820s to 1840s.

“It was a really pivotal time in history,” said Laurie Hartwig, who served as director of the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyo., for 14 years and is now a staff member.

The mountain men traveled on the heels of western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, some of the first Euro-Americans to explore the Missouri and Yellowstone river drainages in Montana. The routes the fur trappers traveled, Hartwig said, are the same paths that settlers would later follow to lay claim to the West.

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Hugh's long walk

Mountain man Hugh Glass reportedly walked about 250 miles to reach an outpost following his attack by a grizzly bear. In real life, though, the walk wouldn't have been in the mountains but across the South Dakota badlands.

The living dead

A revenant is a person who has returned from the dead, and Glass certainly fit that definition. Although he never wrote about his near-death encounters, parts of his life have been pieced together from accounts written by others he associated with, as well as by articles of the era based on stories that mythologized the man.

“There isn’t a lot of actual information about any of the mountain men,” Hartwig said. “We’re hoping somebody is going to find a diary up in their attic.”

Buckley said there are four accounts from which Glass' life has been pieced together, including one line from a journal of one of the men on the trip with Andrew Henry's Rocky Mountain Fur Co. when Glass was attacked that reads in part: "one man was torn nearly all to pieces by a bear."

From what has been woven together, though, the museum created its own Hugh Glass website — hughglass.org — to help separate fact from the fictionalized version now showing on movie screens around the world. It is from that website and other historical books written about the period in history from which this story is pieced together.

Local history buffs contacted for comment had never heard of Glass until this movie was advertised.

“It’s a fascinating story and movie and special effects,” said Bill Cole, a Billings attorney who has led preservation efforts for western scout Yellowstone Kelly’s gravesite on the Rimrocks north of the city. “But you can’t be too concerned about the authenticity.”

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Poster

"The Revenant" has already gained film notoriety after Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe last week for his performance.

Hugh who?

As near as historians can establish, Glass was born around 1783 in the Philadelphia area. If that’s the case, Glass was about 40 years old when he joined a group of 100 men traveling up the Missouri River in 1823. The group had been assembled by William Ashley, who together with Henry had formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. to exploit the rich beaver lands of the new West.

Portrayed in the movie by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there are no known photographs, lithographs or paintings of the real Hugh Glass, Hartwig said.

Henry had already made other trips into the new territory, first under the sponsorship of the St. Louis Missouri Fur Co. Led by scout John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Henry and a party of men in 1810 established the first of several Fort Henrys near Three Forks in the heart of traditional Blackfeet Indian territory.

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Places of interest in Hugh Glass' story

The crew only lasted two months at Three Forks because of the unceasing Indian raids. Abandoning the fort, Henry and his men went upstream where his name was bestowed upon Henry’s Lake and the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho.

Twelve years later, in 1822, Henry returned to the region with a party of 150 men to establish a trading post and another Fort Henry near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers — about 20 miles southwest of present Williston, N.D.

Bad luck begins

It was this same fort that Henry’s partner — Ashley — was traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis in 1823 to resupply via keelboats, along with a party of 90 men that included Glass and a 19-year-old Jim Bridger, who had reportedly signed on as a blacksmith.

While enroute, Glass was shot in the leg during a skirmish with Arikara Indians who had attacked the party. The Indians had killed 14 members of the group and all 19 of the horses they had traded to the mountain men. Eleven other men in the group were wounded. This was Glass’ first of several dangerous encounters with the semi-nomadic Plains Indian tribe.

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Letter to parents

This letter, signed by Hugh Glass, was sent to the parents of one of the men killed during a fight with Arikara Indians along the Missouri River in 1823.

Given the difficulty of traveling via the river in boats, Ashley decided to break the group into two teams. One — led by Henry and including Glass and Bridger — would travel overland on foot using horses to pack their gear to reach the latest Fort Henry. The other, led by Jedidiah Smith, set off about four weeks later after finally acquiring enough horses.

Grizzly attack

It was while on this overland trek with Henry’s party of about 15 men and six pack horses that Glass was attacked by a sow grizzly with two cubs, supposedly along the upper Grand River south of Lemmon, S.D. — a landscape much flatter than that shown in the movie. The mauling was so devastating — his throat slashed, chunks of flesh gouged from his back — that Glass was expected to die.

“I’m sure there were hundreds of people mauled by grizzly bears back then, because they were everywhere on the plains,” Hartwig said. “He was popular among the mountain men because of surviving a grizzly bear attack.”

Since Glass clung to life, Henry decided to make a stretcher to carry Glass. After two days, Henry was worried that the group’s slowed progress would endanger all of them. To save the many he was willing to sacrifice the one. Eager to return to the small band of trappers he had left at Fort Henry, he offered to pay two men a bonus to stay with Glass until he died and then bury him. Bridger and John Fitzgerald volunteered for the grave-digging duty.

After staying behind for five days, Bridger and Fitzgerald became concerned they would be too far behind to catch up with the rest of their party, as well as feeling vulnerable to another Indian attack. Stripping Glass of his rifle, knife, tomahawk, fire-starting kit, shot and powder, they left him for dead next to a stream.

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John Fitzgerald

Tom Hardy played John Fitzgerald, one of the trappers who stayed behind to bury Hugh Glass after he died from his grizzly bear wounds.

Somehow Glass regained enough strength to begin hobbling east toward the Missouri River. Some accounts have him feeding off a wolf-killed bison for nourishment. Upon reaching the river he obtained a boat to float downstream to Fort Kiowa, located near what is now Chamberlain, S.D. The trek had covered an estimated 250 miles. By the time Glass arrived at the fort it was already October — about the same time the rest of his party finally reached Fort Henry.

Not one to wait around after healing his wounds for a couple of days, Glass set out to reportedly seek revenge against Bridger and Fitzgerald for abandoning him. Traveling upstream with a group of five traders by boat to a Columbia Fur Co. trading post, he went ashore rather than paddle around a large oxbow. The rest of the party, which remained in the boat, was killed by a group of Arikara Indians. Glass narrowly escaped capture, aided by some Mandan Indians.

“In addition to being mauled by a grizzly and left to die, Glass had been involved in three Indian attacks in which 21 men were killed and 16 wounded,” wrote Clay Landry, a Helena mountain man re-enactor and history buff who authored some of the hughglass.org articles. “While this number of close calls would give most men pause, Glass’ actions indicate he remained focused on his current situation and his pressing need to reach the mouth of the Yellowstone River.”

One more time

It was late November when Glass set off across the Dakota territory for what’s believed to be a 38-day hike to Fort Henry. His revenge would have to wait, though, since the party had abandoned the fort for lack of beaver to establish a new winter outpost near the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers, closer to the friendly Crow Indians.

Undeterred, Glass set out again in the middle of winter to make another 250-mile trek. How he knew where to go is uncertain; perhaps Henry had left a note at the old fort. According to trapper George Yount’s account, Glass reached the newest Fort Henry on New Year’s Eve of 1823.

The man who everyone in Henry’s trapping party thought had died on the Dakota plains was very much alive and, one would have to believe, looking for vengeance against the men who had left him for dead. Otherwise, why would he have ventured so far in such perilous winter weather? Even among modern travelers the frigidity of the Dakotas is well-known and feared, a place where low temperatures are commonly in the single digits or below zero during December and January.

Unfortunately for Glass, Fitzgerald was not with the group, and Bridger was pardoned, possibly because of his youth and after claiming he was influenced by the older Fitzgerald into leaving Glass. Fitzgerald had set out for Fort Atkinson. Possibly he and Glass had passed within miles of each other on their excursions in opposite directions.

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The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in "The Revenant," which captures one man’s epic adventure of survival and the extraordinary power of the human spirit. 

On the trail again

When Henry asked for a volunteer to deliver a dispatch to Ashley in St. Louis to update him on the trapping party’s endeavors, Glass supposedly volunteered in hopes of catching up to Fitzgerald. On Feb. 29, 1824, Glass and four others set off on the journey to reach Fort Atkinson, located near present Omaha, Neb., at the junction of the Missouri and Platte rivers, more than 1,000 miles to the southeast.

Enroute, Glass and his compatriots would have yet another run-in with the Arikaras, this time along the North Platte River. Two of the men were killed. The other three, including Glass, scattered and were without their rifles. Once again, Glass was walking back to a prairie fort. This time, however, he at least had his knife and fire-starting kit.

Supposedly Glass told another trapper, “Although I had lost my rifle and all my plunder, I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint and steel in my shot pouch. These little fixens make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or any place.”

In mid-May Glass finally arrived at Fort Kiowa — the same place he had ventured to after the grizzly attack. It was there he learned that Fitzgerald had enlisted in the Army and was now at Fort Atkinson, farther down the Missouri. In June he arrived at Fort Atkinson but was denied access to Fitzgerald because he was now protected as a government employee. Glass had to settle for getting his cherished rifle back as his only consolation.

Meanwhile, Henry decided to abandon his fort at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. According to a National Park Service account, Henry and his men ventured south along the Bighorn River, through Bad Pass above Bighorn Canyon, to explore Wyoming’s Green River region. From there the men later returned to St. Louis, and Henry ended his raucous career in the fur business.

Shot once more

That same year, 1824, Glass set out on a trading adventure to New Mexico where he was shot with an arrow in the back by a Shoshone Indian. After healing from this latest wound — the metal arrowhead cut out by a fellow trapper using a razor — Glass supposedly returned to the Yellowstone country.

By the spring of 1830 historical records confirm that Glass was on the payroll at Fort Union, near the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, working as a hunter for the American Fur Co. Supposedly Glass killed so many bighorn sheep that lived on the side of nearby badland cliffs that they named it Glass Bluffs.

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Fort Union

Fort Union post managers like Kenneth McKenzie, Alexander Culbertson, and Edwin Denig lived in the Bourgeois House, along with their families, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

In yet another attempt to establish trade with the Crow Indians, in 1832 Fort Cass was built by the American Fur Co. three miles downstream from the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers — close to the last Fort Henry location. Glass, now about 50 years old and tattooed with scars from his many brushes with death, supposedly moved to the new fort to provide his services as a hunter.

It was here where Glass would fail to cheat death again, that all of his wild adventures would finally come to an end. This time the Arikaras — who through some quirk of fate had so far only managed to injure the hardy mountain man — would finally kill him.

Last fall

As mountain man history buff Landry writes on the hughglass.org website, “In the early spring of 1833, Glass, accompanied by Edward Rose and Hilain Menard, departed Fort Cass to trap beaver a short way downriver from the fort. As the trappers were crossing the ice of the frozen river they were ambushed by a large party of Arikara Indians who had been concealed on the opposite bank. All three men were shot, scalped and plundered. It was these men’s misfortune that an Arikara war party, bent on stealing horses, had been scouting the area around the fort when they spotted the trappers.”

Sometime after his death, two members of the Arikara war party that killed Glass supposedly were buried alive and scalped by other trappers near the headwaters of the Powder River north of Casper, Wyo. The trappers had recognized Glass’ rifle in the Indians’ possession and sought revenge. Even from beyond the grave it appeared as though Glass was exacting some measure of revenge.

So somewhere along the banks of the Yellowstone River are buried the remains of a mountain man who has now gained fame beyond anything he could have imagined.

After seeing the movie and given her long association with the Museum of the Mountain Man, Hartwig is hopeful that there will be a resurgence in interest in the era, its history and the unusual cast of real-life characters who populated the brief period.

Already Hartwig and other members of the museum have received calls from magazines as diverse as Cowboys and Indians and Maxim. Not since Robert Redford starred in the 1972 movie “Jeremiah Johnson” have mountain men drawn such widespread attention, she said.

“That’s why we’re so excited about this movie, because it will renew interest in the mountain man and fur trade.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.