Photo Of The Day

Photo: Unknown source. Hugh Glass. This is his smiley face. Really it is.

Photo: Unknown source.
Hugh Glass. This is his smiley face. Really it is.

Left for Dead

A Mountain Man and a Bear

“Left for dead” are three words you never want to follow too closely behind your name. A few other unfortunate, three-word phrases come to mind, like “attacked by grizzly,” “stalked by natives,” and “crawled 200 miles” — and in 1823 fur trapper Hugh Glass tried them all on for size.

Now early 19th Century America was awesome because you could be hired by the government to be what was called a “mountain man”, which was essentially the official way of saying “professional badass”. Basically a mountain man would get hired on by an expedition to scout out territory, kill bears, play the banjo and give people the evil eye.  Well that’s what Hugh Glass did for a living.

Hugh was an Irishman raised by Pawnee Indians who wandered the countryside lending his services to various expeditions that required a crazy man capable of busting bears’ heads together, collecting furs, frightening the city-folk and being a hardass.

In 1822 Hugh Glass signed on to go on a fur-hunting expedition into the northern Missouri River area.  One day while he was out alone hunting for food, he was surprise attacked by a big bottom angry grizzly bear.

The bear knocked the rifle out of Glass’ hands, totally body slammed him and started clawing the crap out of him.  Since he was a hardas Davy Crockett mother though, Glass just started punching the thing back and hacking at it with his bigass mountain man combat knife. There was this huge battle, and when his friends finally got there to see what was going on, they found a half-conscious Glass pinned down underneath the body of a big dead bear.

Every man there knew Glass was a gonna. They had only to look at what little the she-grizzly’s 3-inch claws had left of the old trapper. At least what they could make out through the blood, which was everywhere. To look at his shredded scalp…face…chest…arm…hand. To see how she’d chewed into his shoulder and back. They had only to listen to the blood bubble from the rip in his throat with his every breath. What astonished them was that he breathed at all. Again. And yet again.

He was going to die. Any minute now. Any fool could see that.

The battle had left Glass half-dead, with a broken leg and huge scratches all over his body.  They’d leave Glass here to recover, if he could, or die in peace. But the major needed two volunteers to stay until the expected happened and give Hugh a decent burial. It couldn’t be long. Then they could catch up. The company would pay each a bonus worth several month’s wages.

He was old compared to most of his fellow mountain men. Nearing or in his early 40s, Glass was old enough to be the father of some the young men. But they called him ‘old’ with a measure of affection and respect. He was a loner, who often insisted on going his own way. But his skill and courage had served them all well. Tall and powerfully built, he wasn’t a man to run from a fight.

Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald were the two men who volunteered to stay behind with Glass and began to dig his grave. Basically, he was so stuffed up that the commander of the mission said to the guys, “wait until he dies, bury him, and then catch up with us”.  So these two guys threw a bearskin coat over Glass’ badly maimed body, and waited around for him to die.

Fitzgerald and Bridger were alone, except for the blood-caked, wheezing apparition at their feet. They could do nothing for him except administer a few drops of water and wave off the flies. Dusk came, then dark, then dawn. Every hour increased their risk. They could do nothing for themselves except watch anxiously for Indian signs. Another day, another night. Their odds of catching up with the others shrank.

What happened next is uncertain.

In the grave, Glass had no use for a rifle. Or powder and shot. Or his knife. Or his possibles sack with flint and steel. If they didn’t take all his fixins, someone was sure to ask why. In the mountains, you didn’t waste valuable gear on a corpse.

They moved the invalid to within reach of water and, certain his days of needing anything more were done, walked away, carrying every tool Hugh Glass possessed.

What they could not take away from him was more vital–his grit, his fury at their treachery, his will to survive and get revenge. The mind inside the battered head was on fire with fever, and he sank in and out of consciousness. He was close to death, but he’d been there before, and fortune had never left him completely on his own hook. He’d lived through scrapes those cowards had never dreamed of.

The two men later claimed that they fled for their lives after hostile Arikaree Indians discovered them, but there is no evidence of that. They soon caught up to the rest of the group heading to Yellowstone and reported that Hugh Glass was dead.

However, the old mountain man did not die—after an unknown period of time he woke up in his shallow grave, under a thin layer of dirt and leaves. All his weapons, equipment, and protective clothing were gone, taken by the two men responsible for his burial. His leg was broken, and the rest of him was hardly better off.

In lucid moments, he reached for water, and as he became more aware he stripped buffalo berries from an overhanging bush. Crushing them in a palm full of water, he managed to get some down his damaged throat. For several days he could do no more. Then fortune found him, and he woke to see a torpid rattlesnake nearby. Glass stretched for a sharp-edged rock and killed the snake. Using the rock, or perhaps his razor (accounts vary), he shakily skinned the rattler and chopped the raw meat fine enough to get it down.

The bear attack had cut him so badly it exposed rib bones on his backside. He had lost a lot of blood, and his wounds were festering. Alone and defenceless, he was more than 200 miles away from the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa.

He set his own broken leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide that had covered him in the grave, and started crawling. Unable to walk at more than a hobble, he crawled much of the ground he covered.

The guy’s half-dead, he can’t even walk and he manages to make it 200 miles through the treacherous American wilderness to safety.

It took Glass six weeks of crawling on his hands and knees to reach the Cheyenne River, hundreds of miles away from his grave. The bear had nearly torn off his scalp. He suffered from fever and advanced stages of infection. To prevent gangrene from progressing in his wounds he lay back on rotting logs and let the maggots eat his dead flesh away.

Too weak to hunt or fish, he survived mostly on wild berries, roots, and other edible plants. Once he was able to scare a couple of wolves away from a bison they had killed. He ate some of the bison’s raw meat himself, still alone, dragging his broken leg along with him. When he finally reached the Cheyenne river, he built a raft from a large fallen tree and floated down the river. Along the way he encountered friendly Sioux who fed him and helped tend his wounds. Eventually he succeeded in floating in his dead tree all the way to Fort Kiowa.

Hugh Glass later admitted that he was motivated to survive only by revenge. After months of recovery at Fort Kiowa, he set out to kill the two men who had abandoned him.

Glass found Jim Bridger at a trading post on the Yellowstone river. Bridger was only 19 years old at the time, and his youth saved him—Glass couldn’t bring himself to kill the terrified youngster. He set out to find the second man, and nearly a year after the fight with the grizzly he did find John Fitzgerald, confronting him in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Fitzgerald had joined the US Army, and although Glass demanded his head, the military would not allow a civilian to execute a soldier.

Knowing that the punishment for murdering a soldier was death, Glass gave up on his mission of vengeance and spared Fitzgerald’s life as well. He accepted a purse of money collected by soldiers who sympathized with his story, snatched his rifle back from the man who had left him to die, and walked away.

Hugh Glass joined a trading party heading for Santa Fe, and for nine more years he continued as a free trapper, always independent, living life on his own terms.

Hugh Glass went on to travel with pirates, go on more expeditions and continue to be awesome.  In true badass mountain man fashion, he was killed in 1833 by hostile Indians.

The Arickara Indians finally succeeded in ending that life when they caught him and two other trappers walking down the iced-over Yellowstone.

When it was over, they rode away, triumphantly bearing his long-cherished rifle.

Interestingly, in April of that year, some fur trappers in the region met a group of Indians who tried to pass themselves off as members of the friendly Minitaris tribe, but a trapper called Johnson Gardner recognised a rifle carried by one Indian as the very one that Glass had got back from Bridger. The Indians were seized and discovered to be Arickara, whereupon they were shot in revenge for the death of Hugh Glass.

Ben Thompson

Hugh Glass – The History Herald

Hugh Glass, Mountain Man


Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

31%