Hugh Glass: One of Early America's Greatest Tales of Survival

ben kirchner
ben kirchner / ben kirchner

Hugh Glass was your quintessential tough guy. An Irishman adopted by the Pawnee people around the Missouri River, Glass spent years roughing the high seas as a sailor (or, some say, a pirate) before joining a band of fur trappers in the summer of 1823. He was determined to explore the Western frontier, though he knew it’d be tough. But he had no idea the adventure would make him the star of one of early America’s greatest survival legends.

One day, while hunting along the Grand River, Glass crossed paths with a mother grizzly who wasn’t very happy to see him and sent him scurrying up a tree. The bear followed and knocked him to the dirt with a swipe of her paw, then chomped on his head, clawed his back, and bit a chunk out of his hindquarters. Glass looked like a goner, but incredibly, he managed to fight back and killed the bear with a knife. When his expedition buddies found him, he was pinned beneath the bear’s huge body, injured and wheezing. Certain Glass was done for, the group’s leader ordered two men to stay behind and bury him while the expedition moved on. The two began digging Glass’s grave and waited for him to die. And waited. And waited.

For the next six days, a comatose but stubborn Glass kept on breathing. Afraid of being left behind themselves, his companions abandoned him, taking his weapons, equipment, and food. As the story goes, when the badly maimed mountain man woke from his stupor, he dragged himself to a spring to drink. Noticing that his wounds were infected, he found a rotting log, lay on it, and let maggots eat and clean his festering flesh. Then he reset his broken leg and started crawling on his belly toward civilization. Dodging buffalo stampedes and hostile Indians, he ate insects, snakes, and meat he found in the dirt. More than two months later, having crawled, hobbled, and rafted nearly 200 miles, Glass stumbled into Fort Kiowa in South Dakota and immediately became a celebrity. (He also allegedly tried to exact revenge on the men who abandoned him, but ultimately decided to spare them.) If surviving all that isn’t reward enough, this year, he’s getting the full folk-hero treatment—having his struggle immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio in the upcoming movie The Revenant. You can watch the trailer below.

For more stories like this, subscribe to mental_floss today!