The enduring story of the desperate Hugh Glass

Booknotes looks at the much told legend of the fur trader who survived

An 1830 sketch of Hugh Glass

An 1830 sketch of Hugh Glass

Mike Selby

“None knew the place or season of his birth / Slowly he ‘woke to anger or mirth ;

Yet none laughed louder when the rare mood fell / And hate in him was like a still white hell.”

This is how, in 1915, poet John G. Neihardt introduced his readers to Hugh Glass — a real life 19th century fur trader. Part of his ‘Cycle of the West’ epic series of poems, Neihardt’s ‘The Song of Hugh Glass’ was the most popular, telling the story of Glass being mortally wounded by a grizzly bear, and how his companions left him for dead.

Part of Neihardt’s choice of Glass as a subject was to introduce someone other than “Lewis & Clark … to the average student of Western History.” This is an odd rationale, as Neihardt was certainly not the first (and would not be the last) to write about Hugh Glass.

Historians have been hard put to find much about Glass’s early life. He was born sometime around 1783, somewhere in Pennsylvania, to either Scotch or Irish parents, or perhaps a mixture of both. His education is also unknown, although he was fairly literate, as a few letters he wrote still survive. He may or may not have been a sailor, and he may or may not have lived among the Pawnee People.

What is known, and is easily the only reason he was ever written about, is that in during the summer of 1823, Glass stumbles across the last thing anyone wants to encounter in the deep wilderness of South Dakota: two grizzly bear cubs. Almost before he can retreat, their mother is upon him, “ripping his scalp, puncturing his throat, and breaking his leg.” He is finally saved by the arrival of his fellow traders, but his wounds are so deep that moving him would be fatal.

The leader of the trading expedition offers a reward to anyone willing to stay with Glass, while the rest of the expedition heads back to their trading post. Two men accept the reward, and agree to bury Glass if he dies, or carry him back to the trading post if he recovers enough to be moved. After two days of no change, the two men simply abandon Glass to the elements, and return to the trading post, stating Glass had died and they had indeed buried him.

They should have waited three days.

Glass somehow recovered, and began a two-month crawl, limp, and hike through the wilderness, sustaining on berries, bone marrow, and the kindness of Native Americans. When he finally arrives at the trading post it is to the awe of everyone who were told he had died. Fuelled only by revenge, Glass leaves the post to hunt down the two men who left him to die.

Now this was a great story. So before it travelled too far orally where it would likely be grow all out of proportion, it was set down in print under the headline ‘The Missouri Trapper’ in the March 1824 edition of the Philadelphia newspaper ‘Port Folio.’ A full year later it was reprinted in ‘The Missouri Intelligencer,’ and then again in a Buffalo paper called the ‘Western Literary Messenger.’

Glass’s adventures then leave the confines of the newspapers and begin to appear in books, such as George Frederick Ruxton’s ‘Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains,’ Rufus B. Sage’s ‘Scenes in the Rocky Mountains,’ and Philip St. George Cooke’s ‘Scenes and Adventures in the Army.’

From here the Glass legends begins to appear in fictional accounts, such as Emerson Bennett’s short story ‘Tale of the Frontier,’ and an unknown author’s story called ‘Old Glass.’

Glass continues to enthral readers in the 20th century with the above mentioned ‘Song of Hugh Glass,’ Verne Wright’s 1948 novel ‘Mountain Man,’ and Frederick Manfred’s 1954 novel ‘Lord Grizzly.’

1971 sees Hugh Glass appear on the big screen in ‘Man in the Wilderness’ starring Richard Harris.

Then in 1997 the United States Ambassador to the WTO in Switzerland— Michael Punke—comes across the story of Glass in a book he is reading on a plane. He spends the few years turning it into a novel, where it is published in 2002 as ‘The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge.”

Last year the film based on Punke’s novel was released, being nominated and winning just about every film award possible (including 12 Oscars). Almost 200 years later, and with a little help from Leo DiCaprio, the story of Hugh Glass is alive and well in the 21st century.

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the film and intend to, please stop reading.) Although spurned on by consuming revenge to hunt down the men that left him to die, when Glass finally caught up to them in real life, he was overcome with compassion and forgave them. While this is pretty awesome on Glass’s part, it doesn’t really translate into an exciting climax on film.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library