Who Was Hugh Glass?

The Revenant is just the latest in a long history of retellings of Glass’ ordeal. Why does every generation of Americans revisit his story?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Grace Dove in The Revenant.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Grace Dove in The Revenant.

© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox

The first written record of the mountain man Hugh Glass’ travails can be found in a letter that a fellow hunter, Daniel Potts, wrote to friends back East in 1824. Potts, like Glass, was employed by General William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company and had been on hand for the debriefing of a detachment of hunters and mountain men returning from a fight with Arikara Native Americans. After telling his correspondent what the men reported had happened in the skirmish, Potts wrote that one man of the group “was allso tore nearly all to peases by a White Bear and was left by the way without any gun who afterwards recover’d.” This hunter in “peases” was Hugh Glass.

Since Potts wrote his letter, the minimal details of Glass’ story have been spun out dozens of times, furnishing material for newspaper articles and magazine sketches; an epic poem; a couple of novels; a biography; a very of-its-time early-1970s movie; Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant; and, now, the Alejandro González Iñárritu film, which is adapted from that book and takes its name. The film prides itself on a sense of elemental timelessness, but in truth, the movie, like every retelling of the Glass myth, has had to put significant flesh on the mountain man’s storied bones. And so each generation has created the Glass that most satisfies it. Where has Glass been, and what does our version tell us about ourselves?

Here’s what we know about the historical Glass. In 1823, he went up the Missouri River with a party led by William Ashley, then split off with a group led by Ashley’s partner Andrew Henry, which sought the Yellowstone River. They were on the Grand River, on the border between North and South Dakota, when Glass, sent ahead to hunt meat for their dinner, encountered a bear in a thicket. The bear ripped him open and he was left clinging to life. Fearing that the Arikaras would find the party if they stayed, Henry left two men—probably, though not definitely, Jim Bridger and a companion named Fitzpatrick—with Glass, to bury him when he inevitably died. The two left after five days, when their fear overcame them; convincing themselves that he was on his way to death, they took Glass’ rifle and “possibles” (survival supplies) along. They showed Henry these items as proof of the man’s demise.

Glass woke up and rested by a spring for 10 days, then crawled 350 miles to Fort Kiowa, on the Missouri River, in the southeastern part of present-day South Dakota. He then traveled to Henry’s post at the junction of the Bighorn River and the Yellowstone. By then he seems to have dropped the idea of avenging himself on Bridger and held a grudge only against Fitzpatrick—though we don’t know why. He went to Fort Atkinson in search of Fitzpatrick, but his quarry had enlisted and was protected by the Army. Glass got back his rifle, and that was the end of the matter. He was eventually killed, apparently by the Arikaras, near the Missouri River, in 1833.

That’s what we know. Beyond this basic story line, we have embroidery. Did the bear have two cubs with her? Did Ashley offer the men money to stay with their wounded friend? Bridger went on to become a famous mountain man, but who was Fitzpatrick? What were Bridger’s and Fitzpatrick’s relationships with Glass? Who was Glass, anyway? Was he a former sailor–turned-pirate, as some account would have it? What made him want to take this job, to live in a dangerous place and do this dangerous work? Why did he seek vengeance? And why did he ultimately forgive Bridger, if not Fitzpatrick?

I asked the historian Jon T. Coleman what he thought about the way the new film answered these questions. Coleman is the author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation—a book that takes the scant details of the Glass story and explains what the man might have meant to 19th-century Americans. “It’s hard for me to get into the mode of ‘Oh, you didn’t get this right, you didn’t get this right’ when the Hugh Glass story was a circus from the very beginning,” Coleman said.

That circus started with James Hall, a lawyer and aspiring writer who moved to Illinois to harvest stories of the American West. In 1825, Hall, having caught wind of the Glass story from an “informant” who saw Glass tell it in a frontier fort, wrote a sketch titled “The Missouri Trapper” and managed to get it published in a Philadelphia newspaper called The Port Folio. Here’s that sketch’s incredible opening: “The varied fortunes of those who bear the above cognomen, whatever may be their virtues or demerits, must, upon the common principles of humanity, claim our sympathy, while they cannot fail to awaken admiration.” The piece was an argument for mountain men’s hardiness and toughness—a “report from the West” meant to amuse urban audiences,and to make them feel good about the kinds of men that the new republic was producing. The Glass of Hall’s sketch, Coleman points out, has no interior life, except for a sense of “chivalry” that led him to pursue vengeance. The mental agonies he undergoes in later incarnations aren’t present; the drama lies only in the trauma his body endures.

Hall ended his sketch with Glass, thwarted in his revenge, getting his rifle back: “This appeased the wrath of Hugh Glass, whom my informant left, astounding, with his wonderful narration, the gaping rank and file of the garrison.” This is an attribute of American “mountain men” that has been lost in the Punke book and the Iñárritu movie: They were notably voluble, loud, and active participants in the making of their own myths. The Punke version of Glass barely speaks—his larynx got in the way of the bear’s claws. By contrast, contemporary sources describe Glass as a prolix storyteller, not a mute endurance machine. “He was an artist in his own right, perhaps,” Coleman told me. “And the art started, the fabrication of the story started soon after it happened. It wasn’t like it happened in history and suddenly people picked it up and started weaving it into fiction; it was almost instantaneous. People started elaborating on it and making it into something bigger than it was.”

Soon after Hall published “The Missouri Trapper,” iterations of the Glass story began popping up in newspapers and books. The 19th-century Glass was a curiosity, like other real and fictional mountain men, trappers, and riverboaters who were beloved in the press: Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, James P. Beckwourth, Mike Fink, Jedediah Strong Smith, John Colter, Sut Lovingood. For mid-19th-century Easterners steeped in the ideology of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, stories like Glass’ were catnip. The new United States—especially the distant, powerful landscape of the American West, just “uncovered” by Lewis and Clark a few decades before—bred pragmatic, iron-tough men like Glass, who were capable of standing up to a grizzly bear and living to tell the tale. Surely the country was something special.  

It’s ironic, Coleman points out in his book, that it’s the “marginal people laboring in far-off places” who came to be this era’s American heroes: men cheerfully working in a dangerous occupation, whose lives were cheap. For Coleman, Glass’ vulnerability intrigues him almost more than his strength. He writes of this time in history:

Calamity preyed on Glass because he was vulnerable. His employer and his nation couldn’t protect him. He never established the alliances with the Indian leaders that safeguarded previous generations of European traders in the West. He bet his life on a poorly conceived scheme: that Americans thought they could sneak into the region, harvest furs with their own labor, and get out before the Native inhabitants punished them for their trespasses. This strategy worked for some—William Ashley emerged golden—but the majority of employees and free trappers slogged through the majestic scenery gaunt, scarred, and busted. The West beat them to pulp.

If 19th-century writers for magazines and newspapers thought of Glass as a wild man who laughed at death, in the early 20th century, as the closed frontier proceeded toward modernization, the man swaddled in a bearskin was transformed into something closer to a role model. As Coleman writes, before the 20th century, the mountain man was a figure to be admired but not necessarily to be trusted. He was too slippery, telling tall tales and living by his own code, outside of society’s strictures; this made him colorful but dubious. It took some historical distance for a fictional Glass to become an icon of moral rectitude, as well as physical strength.

In 1915, more than 80 years after Glass’ death, John Neihardt, a writer and poet probably best known for his 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, made the Glass story into an epic poem. The Song of Hugh Glass uses Glass’ relationship with Bridger as the propellant for its action. In the poem, Bridger becomes the ingénue “Jamie,” and he and Glass, who’s written as a much older man, have a May-December friendship that’s described as something like a love affair. Glass is taciturn (“the grudging habit of his tongue”) except when he’s with Jamie, who he has taken under his wing and offered to teach the ways of the mountain man. After Glass wakes up and before he realizes that he’s been abandoned, Neihardt has him long to see Jamie again: “To look again upon the merry eyes/ To see again the wind-blown golden hair.”

The driving force of the Neihardt poem is Glass’ anger at, and then forgiveness of, Jamie. At the end, in a climax that owes something to the conventions of sentimental literature, Glass finds Jamie being cared for in a Native American teepee, languishing with an illness brought on by his guilt at having left his friend out of cowardice. Because of the sickness, the younger man is temporarily blind and doesn’t know who Glass is; they talk of the Bible, and eventually Glass reveals himself. They reconcile in a tearful reunion. The 1915 Glass turns out to be a good man, willing to set aside his rancor in favor of love.

Neihardt’s introduction to the poem, written to young readers, holds clues to his intentions. “The tremendous mood of heroism that was developed in our American West during [the period of the fur trade] is properly a part of your racial inheritance; and certainly no less important a part than the memory of ancient heroes,” he writes. “Indeed, it can be shown that those men—Kentuckians, Virginians, Pennsylvanians, Ohioans—were direct descendants, in the epic line, of all the heroes of our Aryan race that have been celebrated by the poets of the past.” The racial language here is common in early 20th-century writing, but, read in modern context, it points toward something important about the Glass story. The tale is about whiteness, about men moving about in a Native American world that already had its own politics and economy, largely viewing them as obstacles to be surmounted or allies to be used for survival, food, or sex. The fact that Neihardt sees such a story as integral to the “racial inheritance” of white readers reminds us how white the Glass story has always been.   

In the middle of the 20th century, Glass emerged again, this time as the centerpiece of a story of a man at war with the whole concept of civilization. In Frederick Manfred’s 1954 book, Lord Grizzly, the mountain man is talkative as all heck, though the reader may wish he weren’t; some of the dialect used, while historically sourced, is distractingly comical. Of the many versions of Glass, Manfred’s may be the one who’s easiest to psychoanalyze: Manfred gives his hero a full backstory and many loud opinions. The book was a best-seller and a finalist for the National Book Award that year, indicating that it tapped into its own time on levels both critical and commercial.

Appropriately for an era that was (contra popular conceptions of the 1950s) quite concerned about its own tendency toward social conformity, Manfred’s Glass is a man who is against society and everything that goes with it: laws, rules, and white women’s ways. Glass has a Native American wife, Bending Reed, and he reflects on her attitude toward him: “He thought it a good thing that from birth on Indian women were taught to serve their lord and master. They knew exactly how to arouse the man in him. They knew how to keep a brave man brave.” He refuses to shave his beard, which his boss asks him to do, because it’s a sign of manhood (here comes some of that dialect): “We made a mistake when we let the wimmen talk us inta kissin’ ‘em, smoozlin ‘em face to face. The Indian wimmen never did it and was the better for it. And then we made a mistake when we let them talk us into shavin’ so we’d look like nice little boys again. It’s not wonder the country is so full of wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn kids.”

The abandoners, in Lord Grizzly, are young Bridger and a Fitzgerald who’s written as a slick pragmatist who is too smart for his own good. Glass eventually forgives Bridger (not before coming to the brink of gouging his eyes out, a common fighting tactic in the early 19th century), but Fitz’s betrayal bothers him more. Thinking, during his long crawl, about Fitz’s motivations for leaving him, he decides it makes sense that a man with some education would do such a thing.

Reading filled the head with excuses on how not to be a man in a fix. On how not to be a brave buck. In a fix a bookman sat down and told over all his ideas afore he got to work and shot his way out of a fix. In a fix a man hadn’t ought to have but one idea—and that was how to get out of a pretty fix pronto.

Glass defines himself as the opposite of this “bookman,” in one passage imagining himself as the Biblical Esau to Fitz’s Jacob. Jacobs, he thinks, are “Rebekah favorites, mama boys, she-rip sissies who stayed behind in the settlements to do squaw’s work, the smooth men back home who ran shops and worked gardens and ran factories.” Not Glass. “No, if anything he was an Esau, a hairy man and a man’s man and a cunning hunter, a man of the prairie and the mountains.” This “Lord Grizzly” was self-aware, conscious of his own place in the order of things; the difference between him and the kinds of people who would publish humorous sketches about him in Philadelphia magazines was something he considered and treasured.

Who is the 21st-century Glass? Over the past few years, Glass has become a totem of lost American masculinity, often recycled to point out the weakness of contemporary men, who could never have done what he did. He’s been named “Badass of the Week.” The hosts of the comedy podcast The Dollop, which told his story last year, turned Glass’ persistence into a commentary on their own comparative lack of mettle. With the Iñárritu movie, hailed for its brutality, Glass joins a pantheon of 21st-century antiheroes whose physical pain only makes them stronger. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Glass is a silent, grunting, man’s man, up against a nemesis, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is not ambivalently motivated or misguided but downright bad.

Another way to look at it: Our Glass is a harbinger of things to come. “I see Glass being a guide to the future as much as to the past,” Coleman told me. Glass, Coleman said, is often used as instructional material in survivalist literature; a tale of the frontier reimagined as a vision of the post-apocalypse, his resourcefulness and grit recast as an object lesson for those who make it to the other side. Glass’ trek is reminiscent of the journey of the protagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: a dismal drag across unpromising wastelands. You would hardly recognize the sly tale-teller, the sainted forgiver, or the thoughtful rebel in this grim, determined man.