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(Bob Crofut)
(Bob Crofut)

Hugh Glass: The Truth Behind the Revenant Legend

6/12/2006 • Wild West Magazine

Every man there knew Hugh Glass was a gone ‘coon.’ 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.

Tough as they’d found the old coon (a term mountain men used to describe themselves) to be that summer of 1823 as they challenged the Upper Missouri tribes to reach the beaver streams, Major Andrew Henry and his nine trappers would have been incredulous if they’d known how indestructible Glass and his story have proved to be. That he would become the subject of controversy would not have surprised them. That some men would call him a liar and accuse him of slandering a gallant comrade might have puzzled them. The notion that Hugh Glass was about to crawl into American legend, to become an epic hero of story and poem, would have made them laugh.

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

Hostile natives had already finished off 17 of their brigade. Arikara (also known as Ree) Indians had killed 15 in a June 2 attack that forced them off their Missouri River keelboats and–that route to the mountains closed–set them trudging west up the Grand River valley. August was two-thirds gone, yet several of them still nursed scars from that battle, including Old Glass, who’d taken a ball in his thigh. That hadn’t stopped him, but the grizzly had finally done him in.

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 young men like Jim Bridger, who was beginning his second year as a trapper. But they called him ‘old’ with a measure of affection and respect. He was a loner, who often insisted on going his own way. His willful foray up the draw for ripe plums, which had ended in ‘Old Ephraim’s’ embrace, was typical. But his skill and courage had served them all well. Tall and powerfully built, he wasn’t a man to run from a fight.



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One or two of the somber group that ringed his dying ground thought Glass deserved to lose this battle. He’d exposed them all to greater risk. The U.S. Army had made a sham of punishing the Arikara village for the devastating June attack. If a couple of frustrated trappers hadn’t torched the Arikara village on their own, the Rees could have laughed in their faces. They were uncowed and on the prod. Henry had ordered his small crew to stick close together as they hurried cross-country toward his fur post on the Yellowstone River. He allowed only two designated hunters and wanted no unnecessary gunfire.

Yet even with those precautions, they’d lost two more men in a recent night attack. Two others suffered wounds. When the attacking warriors proved to be usually friendly Mandans, the trappers knew the Ree contempt was spreading–Assiniboines, Sioux and Hidatsas could well emulate the Blackfeet, who already considered any white man fair game. To draw attention could be to die. The gunshots needed to finish the grizzly and her two yearlings echoed through the gully. So, too, did the screams of Glass. They had to get their 18th fatality underground and move. Now!

But this corpse was still breathing.

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