Real survival stories: Hugh Glass

FEW tales of survival capture the imagination quite like that of Hugh Glass.

The American frontiersman has been the subject of countless articles and books before cementing his legendary place in folklore with the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster The Revenant – an Oscar-winning film based upon the remarkable events of 1823 which left many cinema-goers shaking their heads in disbelief.

As well they might. After all, it seems utterly impossible to believe anyone could trek across open country in four feet of snow while recovering from life-threatening injuries inflicted by a bear. To then see Leonardo DiCaprio slicing open his horse, clearing out its innards and then climbing inside in order to survive the brutally-cold night after they had fallen from a 60ft cliff is, frankly, a scene that would leave even the toughest of survivalists scoffing.

And yet, for all the disbelief at the near-impossible events depicted on screen, the truly remarkable thing is that many of the events were accurate – as far as we can tell from what were undoubtedly embellished historical accounts.

Indeed, if everything is to be believed about Hugh Glass – a man who did little to retreat to the shadows amid the glare of his own celebrity – the most remarkable inaccuracy about the film adaptation is that no one actually died. The only casualty in true-life events was the bear… and maybe the horse, if indeed such an event occurred.

But where did the legend of Hugh Glass begin?

Well, little is known of Glass’s early life, save to say that we believe he was born in 1783 to Northern Irish parents who had moved to Scranton in Pennsylvania searching for work and a new life.

The first 20 years or so of his life are something of a mystery, but it is understood he spent much of his time exploring Montana, Dakota and Nebraska where he had developed a working relationship with the Pawnee tribe. In 1821 he acted as an interpreter between the Pawnee and US authorities.

Some say he had been captured by the Pawnee and held captive for seven years. Other accounts suggest the Pawnee rescued glass when he was washed up on a riverbank and nursed him back to health.

By 1823, Glass signed up to a fur-trading expedition supported by William Henry Ashley.

Ashley was a US congressman and fur trader who brought about mass change in the fur industry after developing a rendezvous system instead of trading posts.

Funded by the revolutionary Ashley, an expedition – with Hugh Glass as one of several trappers – left its base in St Louis in March 1823, heading north west.

Several months later, and with more than a thousand miles under their belts, the group had almost completed an otherwise uneventful trip and were already discussing plans for a return to Missouri. Talk had also turned to rumours of hostile native tribes as they approached an area now known as Lemmon in South Dakota.

The unassuming Glass was part of a small scouting party charged with a reconnaissance to check the lie of the land further north.

Suddenly, the group were stopped in their tracks as they came face-to-face with a pair of grizzly bear cubs. Fearing the mother would not be far away, the men retreated in trepidation.

Out of nowhere, the cubs’ giant mother crashed through the middle of the group, jaws open and wild-eyed. The trappers scattered in all directions, all except for one of their band – Hugh Glass. His escape route was blocked by thick foliage, and he was the closest victim to the lines of jagged teeth.

Hugh Glass 1

The protective bear tore through his scalp and neck as it grabbed him by the head before throwing him against a tree like a ragdoll, breaking one of his legs. As it resumed the vicious attack, a gunshot from one of Glass’s compatriots was enough to startle the beast into releasing the stricken man. Another shot fatally wounded the enraged animal.

Unconscious and barely breathing, Glass’s severe wounds were dressed, but the loss of blood and lack of response left the expedition’s leaders believing the badly-injured trapper would not survive the night.

The following morning, the decision was made to begin the return journey. However, with Glass seemingly clinging on to his final hours, it became obvious they couldn’t take him with them. Two volunteers were to remain with the dying man until he passed so that he could be given a decent burial.

A few days went by and, although still unresponsive, Glass was somehow still breathing each time John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger went to check on him.

The pair came to an agreement that their colleague had no chance of recovery or survival, and they should attempt to re-join the main party as soon as possible while testifying that Glass had died and they had carried out their instructions of burying his body.

The thought of finishing the stricken frontiersman off had probably crossed their minds. Neither man, however, could bring themselves to do it. Instead, they carried his limp body to a shallow ditch and covered him in a bear skin.

By some unknown miracle, Glass slowly regained consciousness. And, as he blinked through his first sight of daylight in almost a week, his story quickly turned from one of bushcraft in the wild to a tale of out-and-out survival.

Knowing his priority at that point was to rehydrate, he crawled to a small stream just a few yards away before scavenging whatever edibles were within reach. Fortune was on his side – at that time of year nourishing berries and fruits were in abundance, and he was quickly able to regain enough strength to think about his next move.

People of the wilderness have, for centuries, always followed a basic rule of a crisis survival situation – stay put, help will come to you. After all, Glass’s expedition team knew exactly where he was. His location and the route to it were both chartered on their maps. However, there was one key problem to the prospect of being rescued… they all thought he was dead.

He knew he was going to have to make it back to civilisation, using his knowledge of the outdoors and whatever tools, food and weapons he could carry.

This is where one of many immediate problems facing him rose to the surface. He had nothing more than a pocket knife. Fitzgerald and Bridger, before departing, had taken everything of use – his gun, canteen, and his bowie knife.

He began honing the blade of the small knife on a nearby rock. At this point, he knew he was going to be relying on two things to get him through – a sharp knife and a sharp brain.

Next morning, with a belly full of berries and seeds, a crudely-fashioned shoulder bag and an almost certain apprehension of the monumentally daunting task ahead, he headed off in search of help… and some answers to why he had woken up alone in the wild.

Due to healing wounds, as well as having to set his own broken leg, the first few days were uneventful yet arduous. He managed only a couple of miles a day, gaining nourishment from the food he could forage.

Much of his story has been consigned to the stuff of legend and myth, perpetuated through the Hollywood movie, yet, remarkably, a lot of what we know to be true does in fact make it into the film.

Some of his bushcraft and survival skills are on dramatic display, though many others aren’t. For instance, in those early days of his return, it’s believed he made cordage from some of the loose threads hanging from his torn clothing to fashion a fishing line, attached to a hook whittled from the bone of a dead animal he found close to a river.

This skill would have proved vital in his body’s need for protein and calories.

He would also been seeking shelter most nights, and no doubt making use of the ground-covering leaves that would have started to fall as the first winds of a dawning autumn began to draw in. A simple, low, lean-to shelter would have been the chosen method, but the landscape of South Dakota would also have provided an abundance of dead, hollowed-out trees in which to find refuge overnight.

There is no mention of Glass making fire in any of the official accounts, but it’s almost certain that he did, and even more certain that he possessed the high level of skill to do so. After all, temperatures were falling overnight into single figures (lower in the higher grounds he was having to cross), he had little in the way of good clothing, he needed to cook some of the food he was foraging, and he also knew a fire would help ward off roaming bears.

As well as being a good trapper, Glass knew his trees and how to use them. So there should be very little doubt that he would have fashioned a bow drill – using bark for cordage – and made use of the right kind of wood to create a flame.

One point of contention in the film versus reality, follows the moment when he hurtles off a cliff on horseback being pursued by a Native Indian war party, his fall being broken by tree branches as his horse perishes on the dry riverbed below.

Safe from attack, but surrounded by snow and ice (which itself seems unlikely given the season, and accounts of the time), he then cuts open the dead horse – in the style of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back – before pulling out its guts and climbing inside to make a warm bivvy for the freezing night.

Hugh Glass monument

So much confusion and twisted myth was generated by Glass’s adventure, that this account has been woven into legend itself, not just the film’s script.

Curiously though, there may be an element of truth in this aspect of his journey. While nothing exists on any official document, it is understood he spoke of climbing inside the carcass of a horse, but it was never clear if this occurred during this epic struggle or one of his many other trips.

The movie scene with the horse comes after a thrilling run-in with Native American tribesmen – something Glass made little mention of when referring to his return from abandonment. It is likely he encountered one of several Sioux tribes during his journey, and may have been involved in a skirmish or two. He carried the scars of numerous run-ins with tribes, and was no stranger to crossing their path.

However, we know that in real life he did meet a tribe of Sioux – but a friendly band who gave him food, clothing and shelter for several nights while they treated his wounds.

Eventually, two months after waking up in a shallow grave, Hugh Glass staggered into Fort Kiowa – a trading post on the Missouri river near Chamberlain, South Dakota, almost three hundred miles from where he chose not to die.

There, while recuperating and sharing his incredible adventure, he learned of the betrayal of two men who had been assigned to care for him in ‘his final hours’.

Once recovered, and consumed by revenge, Glass went on the hunt for Fitzgerald and Bridger with a vow to kill them both.

He found Bridger first. But as he reached for the gun that would satisfy his vengeful thirst, it is said Glass was struck by how young Bridger was. He was barely 19 years of age. The older man couldn’t bring himself to end the life of someone so young and, instead, chose to forgive him.

Fitzgerald, however, was older and would, in Glass’s eyes, have known his own mind when he left him for dead in the wilderness. He travelled the mid-west in search of his nemesis, again experiencing several run-ins with Native Americans. Eventually, he tracked Fitzgerald down… to where he was based with the Army he had joined weeks after returning from the expedition.

A change of heart again washed over the hunter. He would not slay a soldier. The garrison’s commanding officer did insist Fitzgerald return a rifle he had stolen from Glass, as well as pay compensation.

It’s not clear if he forgave Fitzgerald there and then. Some accounts say he actually promised to come back for Fitzgerald if ever he left the army, and that Fitzgerald then made a vow to never leave the service.

Alas, this part of the legend became academic when, in 1833, Glass died from his injuries after being attacked – yet again – by native Indians. He was trapping with two other men during an expedition on the Yellowstone river when they were ambushed by Arikara.

Over time, it has been almost impossible to separate fact from fiction with the legend of Hugh Glass. But, whether his portrayal in The Revenant is a true account or not, it would be hard to disagree that such an epic blockbuster is a fine testament to one of history’s greatest survivors.

As it says at the foot of a plaque by the Hugh Glass monument in Dakota: “Whatever the details, it was a marvellous show of stamina and courage”.

Monument text

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