Next time you think you are having a bad day, consider the story of 19th century mountain man Hugh Glass . . .
A contemporary painting of a Mountain Man. Photo by Wiki Commons.
The original settlers of the American West were not homesteaders or Conestoga wagon trains. They were “mountain men”–people who were hired by French or British companies to trap furs in the unexplored wilderness, or to guide other exploration parties or military missions. The mountain men were a breed apart–tough, self-reliant, able to tolerate anything that man, beast or weather could throw at them. But of all the mountain men in history, one stands out as the baddest of the bad. His name was Hugh Glass.
Little is known about Hugh Glass’s early life. Some historians have concluded that he was born in Philadelphia around 1783. By the 1820’s, he was working as a trapper and explorer in the upper drainage of the Missouri River, in what is now Montana and the Dakotas. By some accounts, he had been adopted into a Pawnee band; by other accounts, he had been captured by the Pawnee in a raid.
In 1822, Glass was hired by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, founded by General William Ashley, as a part of a fur-trapping expedition that was to paddle up the Missouri River to South Dakota, enter the valley of the Grand River, and cross over to the Yellowstone River, ending up at Fort Henry, one of several scattered US Army outposts in the area. They left in the spring of 1823.
In June, the expedition was attacked by a raiding party of Arikaras, who were opposing the encroachment onto their land. Fifteen expedition members were killed, and several others, including Glass, were wounded. Glass had been shot in the thigh, but was able to keep up with the group until he healed. By August 1823, the expedition had reached the forks of the Grand River, near the present border between North and South Dakota.
Glass was scouting out ahead of the expedition when he surprised a mother grizzly bear and her cubs. The grizzly charged, and was on top of Glass in seconds. Unable to pull out his rifle, Glass instead drew his hunting knife and stabbed wildly as the bear mauled him. Hearing the fight, the rest of the group ran to him, only to find him unconscious next to the dead grizzly. He was bleeding from numerous bites and claw swipes, his ribs were exposed in several places, and air was bubbling from a hole in his throat.
Convinced that Glass was beyond help, the expedition leader, Andrew Henry, asked for two volunteers to stay with Glass until he died, then bury him. The expedition continued on. A few days later, the two volunteers caught up to them, explaining that although Glass had died, they could not bury him because they had been attacked by an Arikara raiding party. They’d grabbed Glass’s rifle and equipment, and fought their way out.
But Hugh Glass was not dead.
When Glass regained consciousness, he found himself alone in the wilderness, next to a dead skinned bear (the expedition members had wrapped him in the pelt to keep him warm) and the empty grave that had been dug for him, with all his weapons and equipment gone. He tried to stand and found that his leg was broken.
Then followed one of the most remarkable stories of human determination ever.
Gritting back the pain, Glass set his own leg and tied a stick around it as a brace. Wrapping himself in the bearskin, he began to crawl towards the nearest settlement–Fort Kiowa, 200 miles away on the Missouri River. He survived by eating berries and killing rattlesnakes for food with rocks. Once he was able to scare a couple of wolves away from a dead bison calf and ate it raw. To prevent gangrene, he allowed the fly maggots to stay in his wounds and eat away all the dead flesh.
After six weeks of crawling and then hobbling on a makeshift crutch, Glass reached the Missouri River and constructed a crude raft by tying logs together. As he floated downriver, he was found by a group of Native Americans, perhaps Lakota, who gave him food, treated his wounds, and gave him a knife and a gun. Glass continued on his raft, and finally floated into Fort Kiowa at the beginning of October 1823, two months after the bear attack.
After years of recuperation, Glass was again able to work as a guide and trapper. According to legend, he spent several months tracking down the two expedition members who had abandoned him and taken his equipment, but decided not to kill them in revenge (he did get his rifle back, though).
In the winter of 1833, Glass and two other trappers were making their way down the Yellowstone River valley when they were attacked by an Arikara raiding party and all three were killed.
Today there is a monument to Hugh Glass at the spot where he was mauled, now the shoreline of a man-made reservoir near Shadehill, South Dakota