Alive! The Incredible Story of Hugh Glass

Left for dead, Hugh Glass defied all odds to survive in this unbelievable story of the triumph of the human spirit.

Apr 23, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

hugh glass story alive


Mountain men of the frontier days truly captured the early American spirit. Brave, taming the wilderness, and ready for anything, many took a unique approach to Manifest Destiny, forging special relationships with nature and the Indigenous people of America. Hugh Glass was one of these men of legend, with a youth filled with sailing, living among Native Americans, and trapping. However, his name is most synonymous with one particular saga that almost took his life. Epitomizing true grit, Glass overcame incredible odds to survive the merciless American plains.


Hugh Glass: Separating Fact From Legend

hugh fights bear
Illustration of Hugh Glass and the Grizzly Bear, by Severino Baraldi/Look and Learn. Source: Cowboys & Indians Magazine


Like many others from the early American West, Hugh Glass’s story has been embellished and inflated with various retellings. It has been told and retold many times over in history, in oral, written, and visual form, with additions and subtractions along the way. Most Americans familiar with the name Hugh Glass probably saw his story come to life on the big screen in the 2015 film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the protagonist. Though the film was “inspired by a true story,” it, of course, takes a great deal of artistic license to add drama and keep audiences on the edge of their seats.


film still leonardo dicaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Source: Kimberly French/20th Century Fox


As with many forms of history, it can be difficult to distinguish the fact from the fiction in Glass’ tale, with some historians even believing that his entire life story was largely falsified by Glass himself. However, sticking with the most consistent facts available from the most reliable sources, let’s take a look at the admittedly incredible life of this early American character.


An Exciting Early Life

portrait jean lafitte
Jean Lafitte illustration by Col. Frank Triplett. Source: Texas Highways

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Hugh Glass is believed to have been born around 1780 in or near Philadelphia. His parents were Scots-Irish, but little else is known about his early life. He eventually became a sailor and, by some accounts, a ship’s captain. However, in 1818, he claimed to have been captured by the legendary pirate Jean Lafitte off the coast of Texas. Lafitte was an interesting character in US history, being both an ally and a nuisance at times.


A notorious pirate and slave trader who operated out of Louisiana, he was an invaluable supporter of the United States during the War of 1812, but in later years, would become a source of exasperation, disrupting US shipping. Glass was given the choice of either joining up with Lafitte’s crew or execution and so he chose to serve under the pirate.


hugh glass karankawa
Lasalle and the Karankawas by Jean Louis Berlander from The Indians of Texas in 1830. Source: Karankawas: People of the Gulf Coast


After about a year of piracy, Glass and a fellow crewmate found an opportunity to escape one night and waded ashore near present-day Galveston, Texas. Glass and his friend were nervous about encountering the Karankawa tribe, rumored to be cannibals. Though the Karankawas did practice ceremonial cannibalism, eating small amounts of the flesh of their traditional enemies, this had been a custom that was widespread among several Texas tribes during early centuries and had widely ceased among the tribe by the previous century.


Still, to avoid the feared man-eaters, Glass and his companion made a wide berth and headed north. Despite their efforts, they would be captured by an Indigenous group nonetheless. However, their captors were the Pawnee.


Life Among the Pawnee

hugh glass cinnabar
Cinnabar. Source: Natural Pigments


Glass claimed that his unnamed companion was killed by the Pawnee in a traditional manner, pierced with many slivers of pitch pine, which were then set ablaze. In an effort to save his life, Glass produced some cinnabar, also known as vermillion, an ore of oxidized mercury, that he had on his person from the pirate ship. This natural material has long been prized for its use as a paint base in cultures around the world and was well established as a diplomatic and trade good among America’s Indigenous groups by Glass’ time.


The Pawnee chief allegedly accepted the gift and Glass, sparing his life. Eventually, Glass would be adopted into the Loup band of Pawnee in what is now Kansas. Contrary to the film version of Glass’ life, he did not have a half-Pawnee son.


photograph pawnee home
A traditional Pawnee home. Source: The Ponca City News


In 1822, Glass’ band visited St. Louis, and he made the decision to leave his adopted tribe and signed up as a hunter and trapper with the Ashley Fur Company. This was an incredibly lucrative profession if one was cut out for it. It meant suffering through brutal conditions in the Great Plains and among the Rocky Mountains, facing inevitable danger, but there was a fortune to be made for those who could survive. Beaver fur, especially, was in high demand in Europe at this time in order to meet the latest fashion trends. William Ashley had already left to trap with over 100 men, but Glass would be part of what came to be known as the Second Ashley Expedition.


The Second Ashley Expedition

hugh glass ashley ad
Recruitment advertisement by William Ashley. Source: On the Road Again


By March 1823, William Ashley had returned to St. Louis. He and his partner Andrew Henry had established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company the year before, and they were eager to take advantage of the booming fur business. Their first expedition built a fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone River in the fall of 1822, and “Ashley’s 100” was eager to move forward into the unknown West and make their fortune.


Among the group were a young Jim Bridger, age 17, and Jedidiah Smith, who would later become famous in their own right. At around 40 years of age, Glass was on the older side for a trapper but was in good physical condition and ready to meet the challenge.


hugh glass arikara ceremony
Arikara men performing a medicine ceremony, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908. Source: Northwestern University Library


Not long after the expedition set out, they were caught in a surprise attack one night by the Arikara (commonly called the “Rees” by the trappers) tribe. The tribe had been in recent conflict with other fur trappers that had crossed through their traditional lands. Fourteen of Ashley’s men were killed and 11 wounded in the attack, including Glass, though not grievously. To avoid further conflict after the initial attack, Ashley and Henry decided to abandon their original route and split their men into two groups. Jedediah Smith would lead one group west, while Andrew Henry would lead the group that included Glass northwesterly.


The Attack

photograph grizzly cubs
Family Portrait, grizzly bear and cubs, by Joseph C. Filer. Source: Joseph C. Filer Fine Art Photography


Glass was tasked to hunt game for the group’s subsistence near the fork of the Grand River in South Dakota when he surprised a mother bear and her two cubs. Anyone familiar with wildlife knows that a mother bear with cubs is the most dangerous type of bear to encounter in the wild.


Glass managed to get off a couple of shots, which the rest of his party heard, but was unable to kill the bear before she mauled him severely. When the rest of the group came running to the shots and Glass’ screams, they found Glass on the brink of death, with numerous ghastly wounds, including a broken leg and torn scalp. He had lacerations on his back deep enough to expose his rib bones. His party killed the bear, but not in time to save him from what looked like a certain death. His friends feared he would pass by morning and did their best to make him comfortable.


hugh glass grizzly attack
Caught off Guard by David Wright. Source: WKMS


Glass defied the odds and remained among the living into the next morning, but Henry wanted to keep moving. The group would be in danger otherwise—the Arikara were always a threat, and they would be much safer reuniting with the other group at their destination. He ordered a makeshift stretcher built and had Glass carried along.


However, after two days, Henry realized that carrying Glass slowed the entire group down. Not wanting to abandon Glass but needing to look out for the welfare of the entire group, Henry offered a cash bonus to whichever two men would volunteer to stay with Glass until his death, give him a Christian burial, and then catch up with the rest of the group. A man named John Fitzgerald and a teenager referred to only as “Bridges,” whom many believe was the young Jim Bridger, volunteered to stay.


photograph jim bridger
Jim Bridger in his older years. Source: History Net


Five days after Henry and the rest of the troop had departed, Glass was still alive, and Fitzgerald grew nervous. Glass had survived longer than anyone had expected, yet he wasn’t really healing, and every second that he and his companion spent out in the wilderness with him put them further behind the rest of the group and in more danger from the Ree. He convinced Bridges/Bridger that they had fulfilled their obligation since Glass had lived longer than anyone had expected and was certain to die anytime. They left the stretcher beside a spring and took off to catch up with the rest of the men, taking with them all of Glass’ supplies: his gun, tomahawk, and knife, as a dead man would have no use for these items.


Determined to Survive

hugh glass monument
Monument to Hugh Glass at Shadehill Recreation Area, where a Rendezvous is held each August in celebration of the mountain man. Source: Travel South Dakota


Although Glass was on death’s door, he was conscious and aware that he had been abandoned. Once his fever broke, he summoned what little strength he had and managed to choke down some nearby berries and drink from the spring. After resting some more, he managed to kill a rattlesnake to eat. When he had regained some energy, he set his own leg.


Maggots had begun cleaning his wounds. He wrapped himself in the only resource he had, the hide of the bear that had killed him, which had been intended to be his burial shroud, and slowly made his way to the Cheyenne River.


hugh glass leonardo dicaprio
A sketch of the real Hugh Glass (left), next to a photo of actor Leonardo DiCaprio playing the mountain man (right). Source: All That’s Interesting


When he made it there, he built a meager raft and floated downstream to Fort Kiowa, eating berries, insects, and roots to survive the six weeks it took. Some sources also cite assistance from the Lakota along his journey, who provided him with food and helped dress his wounds. When he made it to Fort Kiowa in October 1823, Glass had covered 250 miles.


Superhuman Grit

hugh glass sculpture
Sculpture of Hugh Glass’ grizzly attack by John Lopex. Source: Travel South Dakota


What motivated Glass’ fight to survive? He lacked many of the motivations observed in other amazing survival situations, such as a family and children waiting for him to come home. Some sources cite Glass’ desire to gain revenge on those who abandoned him, Fitzgerald in particular, as a fire burning in the pit of his stomach pushing him on his journey. Others maintain he simply wanted his beloved rifle returned to him (and he would eventually be reunited with it).


Glass is cited as one who remained focused on the situation at hand, regardless of what else was going on, and perhaps it was this drive that allowed him to survive his ordeal. Despite the reason for his success (and how much of his story is accurate), Hugh Glass is a memorable figure in American history who inspired his contemporaries and the next generation of mountain men.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”