If you’ve been to the cinema recently, you may have seen the brief but brutal trailer for Leonardo Di Caprio’s latest film Revenant (“one that returns after death or a long absence” per Merriam-Webster’s). Based on true events, the film recounts what happened in August 1823 to frontiersman Hugh Glass when he—at roughly age 43 (a senior citizen by early 19th-century standards)—was deliberately abandoned in what is now South Dakota by two men who had been ordered to stay behind with him after a brutal bear attack left him almost dead. The men were members of a corps of 100 men, led by General William Henry Ashley, who were traveling up the Missouri River on a fur-trading expedition. (For more on “Ashley’s Hundred,” click here.) (If you are planning to see the film and don’t want to know the back story, stop reading here!)
Seriously wounded, Glass regained consciousness to find himself alone with no provisions or weapons two hundred miles from the nearest American settlement. Determined to survive, get back his weapons, and hunt down his betrayers, Glass bound his broken leg and crawled for six weeks through the wilderness, surviving initially on berries, before making it to Fort Kiowa (in present-day South Dakota) where he recovered. Then he set off again, still in pursuit of his belongings and betrayers, surviving more near death experiences before wandering into Fort Atkinson (present-day Nebraska) in June 1824—much to the astonishment of all those who recognized him and thought him long dead. Glass had gone there because he’d heard the second of his betrayers was at the Fort (he’d already tracked down and pardoned the first). But by then that second betrayer was serving in the Army so Glass spared his life.
Out of curiosity as to what was actually reported in the press at the time, if anything, I did a bit of research on the Fulton History site, and discovered the below article from an 1825 issue (exact date not clear but sometime between June-December 1825) of the New York Spectator in which Hugh Glass’s harrowing adventures are recounted. (see below.) It’s not hard to imagine our American ancestors living at that time reading this article with rapt attention, and recounting its contents to family, friends and neighbors. Having read the article and some other materials about Hugh Glass, I can see why the film trailer looked so brutal. By today’s standards, those were extremely stark times, and what Glass went through could not look anything but raw, gritty, and downright harrowing. I’m still weighing up whether I want to see the film.
The frontiersman, already the stuff of legends, eventually lost his life in winter 1833 to attacking Arikara Indians. Glass’s story could not help but fuel the imaginations of future generations of Americans.
In 1915, Glass’s adventures inspired John G. Neihardt, future poet laureate of Nebraska (1921), to write the 120+ page epic poem The Song of Hugh Glass. In 1923, on the 100th anniversary of Glass’s amazing feat of survival, one Nebraska English professor, Julius Temple House, announced his plans to recreate the journey exactly as it happened (of course, minus the bear attack, open wounds, real broken leg, Indian attacks, etc.): “Professor, with Leg Bound, Will Crawl 100 Miles; Would Duplicate Feat Hunter Had to Do in 1823” (Buffalo Courier, 19 August 1923). (Scroll down for the article.)
Professor House had been a contributor to Neihardt’s The Song of Hugh Glass and in 1920 published a biography: John G. Neihardt: Man and Poet. Did Professor House ever make the journey? I found no evidence of that, so, perhaps, it was a publicity stunt or the professor was simply swept up in the romanticization of the old West and the yearning for a frontier that was no more. The Professor found romance in a different form ten years later when, as a widower, he met and married his childhood sweetheart from 50 years before, and took up a teaching post in Athens, Greece (October 2, 1933, The New York Sun). Perhaps, by then, he no longer had any need to channel his “inner Hugh Glass.”