Legends Series: Hugh Glass

The true story of the man Leonardo DiCaprio played in The Revenant.

After Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear in the early 1800s, he then escaped from the shallow grave his companions had buried him in. Alone in the wilderness, he had to crawl for six weeks back to civilization. He survived catastrophic injuries, later coming face to face with the men who left him for dead and chose to forgive them. His tale of grace and survival was largely forgotten until 2015 when Leonardo DiCaprio played him in The Revenant.

Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Photo: 20th Century Studios


Glass’s story typified parts of early 19th-century America. Large expanses of western America remained blanks on a map, and the fur trade was a major industry. Glass was a fur trapper, hunter, and explorer, born of Scots-Irish parents in Pennsylvania.

Fur-trade expeditions sometimes took years, as they ventured into unknown regions.  General William Ashley was in the process of revolutionizing the fur industry by introducing the rendezvous system as a substitute for traditional trading posts.

Ashley was a U.S congressman who, after serving as Missouri’s first lieutenant governor, co-founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which helped pioneer Western exploration. In 1822, the company hired 100 men to join their first expedition up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone River, where they established a trading post.

Fur trade expeditions

The following year, Glass was recruited into Ashley’s existing team, joining the second expedition up the Missouri. Glass spent his most of his life dutifully working for Ashley’s company, but his time there was fraught with tragedy. The first happened just three months after he departed St Louis on a keelboat with Ashley and John Fitzgerald.

Ashley, Glass, and Fitzgerald had rejoined the initial corps when they were confronted by Indians in an Arikara village. A battle ensued, and 15 of Ashley’s men were killed. Glass suffered a gunshot wound to the leg. The battle forced Ashley’s troops to split up, with Glass and other survivors retreating downstream to send help.

Communication in those days consisted of handwritten messages carried long distances by men on foot and hand-delivered to their recipients. This time-consuming process was the only way for one group to know where another was positioned, and where or when to regroup.

Back at Fort Kiowa -– a base camp of sorts — Glass nursed his leg back to health while the group restocked and prepared to set off again down the Yellowstone River. It may seem crazy by today’s standards that a man who had been shot in the leg would resume a dangerous expedition as soon as possible. But this was before notions of modern labor. Glass and the rest of Ashley’s men were assigned a duty and had to perform, regardless of the consequences.

Two months passed. They were near the forks of the Grand River (in present-day South Dakota) hunting for food when Glass’s bear attack occurred.

The bear attack

It was the classic scenario: Glass found himself between a mother grizzly and her two cubs. By the time he realized it, it was too late. The grizzly bear picked him up from the ground, biting into him. Incredibly, Glass managed to kill the bear during the mauling but he was severely wounded in the process. His scalp was ripped open, his leg broken, he had puncture wounds to his throat, and numerous gashes over his back and torso.

More than 300km of wilderness lay between his party and the nearest settlement when the attack occurred. Certain that his injuries were not survivable, Ashley ordered two of his men (John Fitzgerald & Jim Bridger) to stay with Glass until he died. They were to bury him before rejoining the rest of the party and continuing their expedition.

Fitzgerald and Bridger stayed with Glass for several days, who continued to cling to life. The two men began to grow impatient, seeing little reason to hang around, waiting for him to die. They started digging a shallow grave. They stripped Glass of his weapons, wrapped him in a bearskin shroud, and buried him prematurely. They assumed, as Ashley had, that Glass simply wouldn’t be able to survive his injuries. Fitzgerald and Bridger then left Glass for dead and rejoined the expedition.

But Glass wasn’t dead at all. He’d somehow withstood the savage mauling and regained consciousness to find himself beneath dirt, miles from provisions. His weapons were gone, he had a broken leg, wounds exposing his ribs, and deep lacerations all over his body. His situation looked bleak.

Managing to regain a little strength, Glass set his leg straight, of course without any analgesic. He recognized that he’d need to make an arduous journey back to civilization in order to have a chance of recovering. He wasn’t able to walk, so instead, he crawled much of the 300km.

Glass spent almost two months living on berries and roots as he crept toward Fort Kiawa. To prevent gangrene, he allowed maggots to eat his rotting flesh while crawling painfully in a direction he thought would lead him home. When he reached the Cheyenne River, he built a crude raft to float across it.

A memorial to Hugh Glass, South Dakota

A memorial to Hugh Glass has recently been erected near the site where his gruesome attack took place.


By the time he arrived at Fort Kiowa, he’d spent six weeks plotting in his mind how he could seek revenge on the men who had left him for dead. He was angry and desperate to find them. After nursing himself back to health, Glass set out on the Yellowstone River to Fort Henry, looking for Fitzgerald and Bridges. His intentions were clear: he wanted to kill them.

At Fort Henry, he learned that Bridger was at a new camp on the banks of the Bighorn River. Dodging conflicts with Native Americans, he reached the camp and finally met Bridger face to face.

A change of heart

At this moment, his spirit changed. Perhaps envisioning a burly man who had been so callous in his decision to leave him alone and dying, he instead saw a young man, barely 19 years old at the time of the incident. Glass forgave Bridger, sparing his life and re-enlisted in Ashley’s expedition.

Revenge on Fitzgerald was still in Glass’ mind, though. The following year, Glass tracked him down, only to discover that Fitzgerald was now a high-ranking army officer.

Glass had little choice. If he harmed an army general, then he would be killed in retaliation. So he chose to forgive Fitzgerald as well and simply retrieved the gun that was taken from him that fateful day.

Glass continued to join expeditions led by Ashley’s company. Eventually, 10 years after his horrific bear mauling, he was in Montana when he was involved in another confrontation with the Arikara people — the same tribe who had shot him on his first expedition. This time, he was killed.