The story of Hugh Glass
ranks as one of the most remarkable stories of survival in American history.
So much so, that Hugh Glass became a legend in his own time.
Little is actually known about Glass. It was said
that he was a former pirate who gave up his life at sea to travel to the
West as a scout and fur trapper. Exactly when is unknown. He is believed
to have been born in Philadelphia around 1783.
He had already been in the Western wilderness
for several years when he signed on for an expedition up the Missouri
River in 1823 with the company of William Ashley and Andrew Henry. The
expedition used long-boats similar to those used by Lewis and Clark 19
years earlier to ascend the Missouri as far as the Grand River near present-day
Mobridge, SD. There Glass along with a small group of men led by Henry
started overland toward Yellowstone.
At a point about 12 miles south of Lemmon, SD,
now marked by a small monument, Glass surprised a grizzly bear and her
two cubs while scouting for the party. He was away from the rest of the
group at the time and the grizzly attacked him before he could fire his
rifle. Using only his knife and bare hands, Glass wrestled the full-grown
bear to the ground and killed it, but in the process he was badly mauled
His companions, hearing his screams, arrived on
the scene to see a bloody and badly maimed Glass barely alive and the
bear lying on top of him. They shot the bear head and uncovered Glass's
mangled body. They bandaged his wounds the best they could and waited
for him to die. The party was in a hurry to get to Yellowstone, so Henry
asked for volunteers to stay until Glass was dead and then bury him. John
Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger agreed and immediately began digging the grave.
But after three days Glass was still alive when Fitzgerald and Bridger
began to panic as a band of hostile Indians was seen approaching. The
two men 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. After an unknown time,
he regained consciousness to a very grim situation. He was alone and unarmed
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 on September
9, 1823, began crawling south overland toward the Cheyenne River about
100 miles away. Fever and infection took their toll and frequently rendered
him unconscious. Once he passed out and awoke to discover a huge grizzly
standing over him. According to the legend, the animal licked his maggot-infested
wounds. This may have saved Glass from further infection and death. 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 was driven
by revenge. He told others that the only thing that kept him going was
the thought of killing the men who had left him for dead.
It took Glass two months to crawl to the Cheyenne
River. There he built a raft from a fallen tree and allowed the current
to carry him downstream to the Missouri and on to Ft. Kiowa, a point about
four miles north of the present-day Chamberlain.
After he regained his health, which took many
months, Glass did indeed 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. Glass later
found Fitzgerald but didn't kill him either because Fitzgerald had joined
Glass eventually returned to the Upper Missouri
where he died in 1833 in a battle with hostile Arikaras Indians. As with
many mountain men of the era, Glass himself wasn't much of a talker. However
the story of his trek was recounted far and wide among other frontiersmen
and even the native American tribes. The story needed no embellishment,
but at least one version (false) had Glass cutting out the still-beating
hearts of the men who left him for dead. Another claimed (again, falsely)
that Glass forevermore carried Bridger's and Fitzgerald's scalps on his
belt. In truth, Glass may have simply forgiven the men who had left him
The story of Hugh Glass is well known and 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.
There's no evidence that Hugh Glass ever visited
the Black Hills, although he certainly did know of them. As early as 1828
stories of gold in the Hills had begun to circulate, but Glass was a trapper
and trader, not a gold seeker so he probably had little interest. Some
accounts suggest that Glass may have been part of party that passed near
the Black Hills in 1831 and may have visited the Hills briefly at that
The monument to Hugh Glass is located on the shores
of the Shadehill Reservoir southwest of Shadehill, SD.