I looked at him, and answered, “Of course I have. I write about mountain men.”
He gave me a look of pure incredulity. “You have?”
Well, apparently he’d just finished watching a documentary on the history channel or one of the science channels about Hugh Glass. I pulled out one of my favorite resource books, The Mountain Men, by George Laycock, and opened it to one of many dog-eared pages.
I have wanted to use some aspect of Hugh Glass’ incredible tale in one of my novels, but the story is so fantastic, I don’t think it would even work in a work of fiction.
The story of Hugh Glass has to be one of the most amazing stories of survival in the history of the west. The man practically became a legend in his own time.
He’d led a life as a pirate before he decided to become a fur trapper in the early 1820’s at the age of 40. He signed on with William Ashley and Andrew Henry, who led an expeditions up the Missouri River in 1823. When they reached the Grand River near today’s Mobridge, South Dakota, they left their boats to head toward the Yellowstone on land.
During this journey, in which many of Ashley’s men were killed by Arikara Indians, Hugh Glass surprised a grizzly sow and her two cubs. He was away from the rest of his party at the time, and the grizzly attacked him before he was able to shoot his rifle. He fought the bear with his bare hands (no pun intended) and a knife, and nearly killed it, but he was badly mauled during the fight.
His companions heard his screams and came running. They found a bloody and badly maimed Glass. He was barely alive, with the grizzly lying on top of him. They killed the bear and pulled Hugh’s body from underneath her.
Everyone knew that there was no hope for their friend. They bandaged him as best as they could, and waited for him to die. The danger of Indians discovering them was a constant fear, and Hugh’s moans and cries of pain would certainly give them away. William Henry decided their group needed to move on. It wasn’t worth risking their lives for one dying man. He asked for a couple of volunteers to stay behind and bury Glass properly once he died.
John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger agreed and immediately began digging the grave. They waited. Three days later, Glass was still alive. Fearful of Indians, Fitzgerald persuaded Bridger that they should leave and follow their comrades to the Yellowstone.
Fitzgerald picked up Glass's rifle, knife and other equipment and dumped him into the open grave. They threw a bearskin over him and shoveled in a thin layer of dirt and leaves, leaving Glass for dead.
But Glass did not die. It’s not known how much time passed, but he regained consciousness. He was alone and without weapons in hostile Indian territory. He had a broken leg and his wounds were festering. His scalp was almost torn away and the flesh on his back had been ripped away so that his rib bones were exposed. The nearest help was 200 miles away at Ft. Kiowa. His only protection was the bearskin hide.
Glass set his own broken leg and began crawling toward the Cheyenne River about 100 miles away. Feverish and fighting infection, he was often unconscious. It is said that he used maggots to eat away his infected flesh. Then, according to legend (or tall tale at this point, take your pick) he woke up to find a grizzly licking his maggot-infested wounds which could very well have saved him from further infection.
Glass survived mostly on wild berries and roots. On one occasion he was able to drive two wolves from a downed bison calf and eat the raw meat.
According to Glass's own account he only stayed alive to seek revenge, that he wanted to kill the men who had left him for dead.
It took Glass two months to crawl to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft which carried him downstream to Ft. Kiowa on the Missouri.
After he was nursed back to health over many months, Glass set out to kill the two men who had left him for dead. He found Bridger at a fur trading post on the Yellowstone River but didn't kill him because Bridger was only 19 years old, and just following Fitzgerald’s orders. Glass later found Fitzgerald but changed his mind about killing him because Fitzgerald had joined the Army.
Glass eventually returned to the Upper Missouri where he died in 1833 in a battle with hostile Arikaras Indians.
The story of Hugh Glass has been made into a movie "A Man in the Wilderness" in 1971 staring Richard Harris and John Huston, a moderately accurate film. A novel, "Lord Grizzly" also recounts and embellishes the story.