Everybody who has ever read about the Mountain Men who opened the Rocky Mountains to exploration knows that they were tough, brave men. But some stories stand out among all those passed down as examples of their strength and courage. One of those is the story of Hugh Glass.
Glass was on an expedition in the vicinity of the Yellowstone River when he surprised a female grizzly bear with her cubs. The huge bear knocked Glass to the ground and proceeded to rake him with her long, sharp claws and try to smash him with sledge hammer blows of her giant paws.
But the old trappers were indeed tough and Glass pulled out his long sheath knife and began stabbing the bear desperately. His companions, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, quickly came to his aid and the bear was killed.
But Hugh Glass lay mauled and unconscious upon the ground. Mr. Henry, the leader of the expedition thought that the trapper could not possibly survive such awful injuries, so he asked Bridger and Fitzgerald to stay with him until he died and then bury him. The two young men covered Glass with a bearskin for a shroud and began to dig his grave.
But Glass continued to linger, though terribly wounded. His two friends, seeing that he appeared to be drawing his last breaths, thought that he would be dead by the time the grave was finished, were interrupted in their work by an attack of Arikaree Indians. Grabbing Glass’s rifle, knife and other equipment, took to their heels and saved their lives. When they returned to their party, they told Mr. Henry that Glass had died.
They were wrong. Amazingly, Hugh Glass survived. When he regained consciousness, he was in agony from dozens of deep lacerations and a broken leg. His ribs were exposed where the bear’s slashing claws had opened up his back. His wounds were festering.
Finding himself abandoned and without weapons, Glass began to crawl in the direction of Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. It was the nearest white settlement. And it was two hundred miles away.
It was one of the most remarkable trips ever taken. Glass set his own broken leg, wrapped himself in the bear skin and inched along through the wilderness alone. Knowing he was in danger of gangrene, he found a rotten log full of maggots and lay on it to allow the maggots to eat away the dead flesh.
The easier course to follow would have been down the Grand River. But there was more likelihood of meeting hostile Indians in that direction, so Glass crawled toward the Cheyenne River. That part of the journey took him six weeks.
Scratching for edible roots and picking berries, Glass survived. Once he came upon two wolves eating a dead buffalo calf and drove them away from their kill. He feasted on raw meat until he could hold no more. Reaching the Cheyenne, he managed to put together a raft and floated for miles down the river. He was blessed to meet some friendly Indians who gave him some food and weapons for self defense. They also sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the raw wounds.
Unbelievably, Glass finally reached Fort Kiowa. He had been planning his revenge on Bridger and Fitzgerald for leaving him alone to die. But when he found Bridger, he threatened to kill the young man but granted him mercy because of his youth. Tracking down Fitzgerald, he again decided against retaliation. Fitzgerald had joined the army, and killing an American soldier brought swift and severe punishment. But he did recover his lost rifle.
Hugh Glass died in 1830. Yet the story of his impossible journey remains one of the most amazing tales from an amazing time in American history.