Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The indefatigable Hugh Glass

It seems like no matter how much we hear about bravery we can never get enough. With so many people in the world, we frequently read or hear about people doing things so brave that it surprises and inspires us, and perhaps we imagine we would do the same thing in a similar circumstance.

Not likely. If that were so, courageous acts would be so familiar they wouldn’t impress us much. How many of us would have jumped onto the subway tracks last year and covered the fallen man who was having a fit? Or would have stood in front of the tank at Tianamen Square during’s China’s aborted student revolution?

When I have a problem, requiring about one billionth as much courage as stepping in front of a tank, I do think about people who have been more courageous than seems possible. I have some favorites, but some are fictional, and although invented stories seem to inspire in the same way, it shouldn’t really count as much.

Recently I wrote about Ed Rose, an early “mountain man” of enormous courage. Another mountain man, out of the many who seemed more than ordinarily courageous, stands out in a small select group. Hugh Glass made other brave men seem almost weak in comparison. Not a lot is known about him, and much of what is “known” is likely legendary, as is typical in this arena, but that alone doesn’t diminish his stature. Certainly enough of it is true. However, I caution that for almost every “fact” I give here, I have read another version somewhere else.

Glass was probably born in 1783, at the end of the Revolution War, although no one knows where. At some point, possibly 1816, and already long a seaman, he was waylaid by pirates and ended up fighting along side Jean Lafitte for a couple of years. At some point, possibly 1818, he escaped by swimming the few miles from Galveston Island, Lafitte’s fortress, to modern day Texas. Although he made it, he had put himself directly into the firing pan, as the country at that site was the home of an interesting Indian tribe, the Karankawa, known for cannibalism.

Somehow, he made it through that gauntlet, but then got captured by Pawnee Indians, with whom he lived for several years, eventually becoming a member of the tribe. Possibly, it was there that he learned how to survive in the wild. He learned to live off the land, fought alongside his tribe, and captured his prized Hawken rifle from a brave he killed from another tribe. He also reputedly killed a grizzly bear, no small feat even nowadays with modern weapons, and was celebrated for it.

After attending a conference on behalf of the Pawnees in St. Louis, he remained in civilization and enlisted to become a fur trapper. Glass was there for the famous Ashley-Henry campaign up the Missouri River in 1823, which I have written about in some detail a few weeks ago describing Ed Rose’s involvement.

Thus, Glass was present at the battle with the Arikara (also known as the “Arikaree,” ”Rickarees” or “Rees”) Indian tribe, and, although that was more Rose’s time to shine, particularly as a negotiator, at least some think that Glass and Rose together held off the Rees’ fire while the rest of the men escaped before swimming to safety themselves. It has also been reported that Glass was shot in the leg during the attack, and singled out by Arikaras who knew him as a Pawnee, but as he continued on the trek West, serious injury seems unlikely.

After the Arikara had fled before a joint trapper/U.S. Army/Sioux Indian force, the trappers headed into the wilderness. Glass, probably well over 40, and deemed an old man already, went off with a future hall of fame of trappers including a number who become legends themselves, including Rose, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, David Jackson, Jim Bridger, and Tom “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, under the leadership of Andrew Henry, one of the partners in the enterprise, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

During this trip, Glass had, as usual, separated himself from the rest of the crew, possibly to hunt. He was attacked and mauled by a Grizzly Bear. There are so many versions of this story, that it is very difficult to say what happened. Some versions have Glass killing the bear with his knife, others have him being rescued by the guns of his companions. Most, but not all, have the dead bear falling on top of him. The version of young James Clyman, who later wrote in abysmal English about his own adventures, including discovering (among Europeans) what would become known as Yellowstone Park, has him being rescued. Although he did not see the attack himself, he heard it immediately after from men who were there:

"Here a small company of I think (13) men ware furnished a few horses only enough to pack their baggage they going back to the mouth of the yellow Stone on their way up they ware actacted in the night by a small party of Rees killing two of thier men and they killing one Ree amongst this party was a Mr Hugh Glass who could not be rstrand and kept under Subordination he went off of the line of march one afternoon and met with a large grissly Bear which he shot at and wounded the bear as is usual attacted Glass he attemptd to climb a tree but the bear caught him and hauled to the ground tearing and lacerating his body in feareful rate by this time several men ware in close gun shot but could not shoot for fear of hitting Glass at length the beare appeaed to be satisfied and turned to leave when 2 or 3 men fired the bear turned immediately on glass and give him a second mutilation on turning again several more men shot him when for the third time he pouncd on Glass and fell dead over his body this I have from information not being present here I leave Glass for the presen . . . “.

Clyman never went back to talking about Glass although he clearly intended to do so. What happened after that is greatly disputed, and much of it had to come from Glass himself. The version here is composite, from many sources, and I have standardized it while leaving room for some alternatives.

Glass wasn’t dead, but he was probably in a coma. According to one account, he was carried on a litter for two days. Others say he was too torn up even for that. At some point though, it became necessary to move on quickly or lose more trappers to Indian attack, and two men, possibly volunteers, were chosen to stay with Glass and bury him when he died. One was Jim Bridger, a teenager who would outlive pretty much all the other famous mountain men, and John Fitzgerald. Although there roles have been repeated as fact over and over, even that is not a certainty.

Waiting several days for Glass to die, they either grew tired of waiting or were spooked by the thought of more angry Indians. They took his Hawken rifle and gear and left him next to the grave they had dug. They knew he was not dead, or they would have buried him.

Not only was Glass alive, but he would shortly accomplish what extremely few men could do while in good shape. Coming to, he found himself alone and without anything to defend himself, hunt or cook.

The first thing he had to do was set his broken leg. He was completely in the wilderness, and a few hundred miles from Fort Kiowa, the closest place for help. Distances from 100-300 miles have been suggested but 200 is likely closest to the truth. He set out by crawling on all fours, eating insects and berries to survive, traveling at night, and trying to avoid Indians and wild animals. He may have been able to fashion a crutch with which he could walk.

Two legends in particular seem to have grown out of the trek. The first, that Glass had to do something to cure the severe flesh wounds in his back. As always, versions differ. One has him rubbing his back on a log filled with maggots so that they would eat the dead flesh. Another has him passing out and waking to find another bear licking his wounds, and cleaning out the dead tissue. Both seem unlikely, sounding more like “tall tales” than history.

The second legend is that he fought off two or more wolves for a freshly killed buffalo. Again, only Glass would know, but it’s certainly not impossible for someone so accustomed to living in the wild and desperate to eat something.

Eventually, he made it back to the abandoned Arikara Village where he found some food. Some Sioux Indians found him there and brought him to their village. With the Sioux’ assistance, he made it back to Fort Kiowa, from whence the whole troop had set out, and restocked and re-armed himself. It was also likely they who helped heal him.

Once improved, he set off West again on his mission to kill the two men who had abandoned him and taken his weapons and supplies. On the way he and his company was attacked again by the Arikara, and rescued by some Mandan Indians. He was escorted to Fort Tilton and re-supplied there again. But he could not stay for fear of another Arikara attack. He moved on to Fort Henry, named for the team leader, who had built it so long before then in Montana that most of the other men in his troop were little boys at the time. Glass expected to find the two men who had left him for dead.

It was now winter, and he again lived off the land until he arrived at Fort Henry, only to discover that they had moved the fort further South. On he went and eventually, after covering hundreds of a miles, arrived. He announced that he was there to kill Bridger and Fitzgerald. Of the two, only Bridger was there, and one can only imagine his shock and remorse at seeing Glass alive. Still only a teenager, he abjectly apologized, which Glass accepted.

Glass spent the New Years’ at the new fort and then headed off to return to St. Louis, undoubtedly hoping to eventually find Fitzgerald, whom, he had probably confirmed with Bridger, had been the motivating force in leaving him in the lurch, and had joined the army.

Henry sent him out with four other men to go to St. Louis and report to Ashley, his partner. On the way, the Arikara attacked the small party and killed two of them. Two others beside Glass survived and got away. Glass survived and successfully hid himself. Again, left without firearms, he made his way back across country to Ft. Kiowa, where he learned that the two other survivors had reported his death. It was the second time everyone had thought him dead.

Glass now headed to Ft. Atkinson where he was told Fitzgerald was stationed. Traveling there, he again announced his attention. There is no report of Fitzgerald apologizing, or, if he did, of Glass accepting. However, Glass was told that if he killed a soldier, he would himself be hung. He got back his rifle from Fitzgerald, but no other satisfaction.

So, what is true and what not true? Impossible to say, but it appears as certain as one can expect that Glass was at the Arikara battle, was soon attacked and mauled by a grizzly while a distance from his group, and was left for dead in the wilderness, being forced, while near dead, to travel an inconceivable distance without any gun or knife or way to protect himself.

For about ten more years, Glass continued to trap and wander the West. These were the glory years of the trapping business, but Glass was no entrepreneur, as were some of his companions. In 1935 (putting him at about 53 years of age) out on a tramp with Rose and another, he was reportedly finally killed by the Arikara as was Rose. At least that was believed when some captured Arikara were found with his gun. The bodies were never recovered.

At his death, Glass was already a legend, more so in the Indian nations than among the Americans, having survived innumerable attacks from the Arikaras. As with many of the men brought to your attention in this blog, it is hard to understand why he is not as famous to us today, as is, say, a Kit Carson, or even Jim Bridger, neither of whose lives can really compare in terms of sheer adventure to Glass. One reason may be his spending so much time in the wild and not spending time with those would write or, as often happened, grossly exaggerate his feats.

Still, he has done better than Ed Rose, of whom almost nothing is ever written outside of the obscure history book. Several men have written Glass’s history. The great Indian popularizer John Neidhardt (Black Elk Speaks) wrote the The Ballad of Hugh Glass. I recommend John Myers Myers’ (duplication not a typo) The Saga of Hugh Glass. I have not read the more recent Bruce Bradley version, which, according to an Amazon.com review, has been admittedly embellished by the author. There has even been a movie, an episode on a television show (Death Valley Days narrated by Ronald Reagan) and a novel about him as well.

There is also a small park and plaque dedicated to him near Lemmon, South Dakota, near where he was attacked by the grizzly. It is quite picturesque.

Still, all told, it is not much and your neighbors will not have likely have heard of this amazing man or know what he accomplished and survived.

If Hugh Glass could look down from heaven or the happy hunting grounds, I doubt he would care who has heard of him. And even if you came to visit him, he’d probably go off and camp somewhere else.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:56 AM

    Yeah, yeah, Hugh Glass, freakin' wonderful... where's the house diary???? We're hanging on every word.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .