The true story behind “The Revenant” is even crazier than the movie

By now, many of us have at least seen the trailer for The Revenant, with Leonardo DiCaprio cast as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and hunter who embarks on a mission for vengeance after being left for dead by his cohorts in the wake of a bear attack. As it turns out, Hugh Glass was a real guy who had a pivotal role in the westward expansion of the fur trade, and by extension, America. And he was even more of a badass than we see in the movie—though not for the reasons you might expect.

The lucrative fur trade was a driving force behind American exploration, as Eric Jay Dolin explains in his chronicle, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their 1804 expedition to explore the land he acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, two of his objectives were to discover 1) what items Native Americans may accept in trade for pelts, and 2) whether a navigable, all-water route might connect the Pacific to the fur posts of the Missouri River.

Mountain men

Lewis and Clark did not find such a route. Instead, they found the Rocky Mountains, which gave rise to a new class of fur trader: the mountain man.

Dolin estimates only a few thousand men pursued this risky path. It was a wild, violent existence that required rugged self-reliance, but had its romance as well.  Mountain men subsisted on what today we might call an intense paleo diet, sometimes consuming 10 pounds of meat per day. Mountain men spent autumns and springs trapping, and winters camping—often in groups together with their wives and families—and summers selling at rendezvous, where they’d often drink and gamble away their earnings. (While in the wild they subsisted on what today we might call an intense paleo diet, sometimes consuming upwards of 10 pounds of meat per day, and replacing bread with dépouille, smoked straps of fat taken from either side of a buffalo’s spine.)

Among the toughest of the mountain men were the free trappers. Rather than contracting with a fur company to provide supplies and salary in exchange for all their pelts, these traders struck out on their own. They assumed all the risk for their journey, using their own horses, guns, and gear, and selling their furs to the highest bidder. According to mountain man Joseph Meek, the free trader “took what route he thought fit, hunted and trapped when and where he chose; traded with the Indians … dressed flauntingly, and generally had an Indian wife and half-breed children.”

Eventually, Glass became a representative of free traders. In the late 1820s, the New York-based John Jacob Astor—arguably the world’s most powerful fur trader—had an eye on western expansion. It was Glass who convinced his emissary, Kenneth McKenzie, that there were mountain men in the Rockies eager to do business with Astor’s company.

“This was all the coaxing McKenzie needed,” Dolin wrote. “In 1829 the American Fur Company, at McKenzie’s urging, sent a party of trappers and goods into the mountains. Astor had finally entered the Rocky Mountain Trade.”

But before Glass could make his mark on history as a spokesman for free traders, he had to become a legendary mountain man—which is what we see dramatized in The Revenant.

A grizzly ordeal

As Dolin wrote, mountain men were “forced to confront a lawless world where violence lurked at every bend.” It’s hard to imagine anything making them shake in their boots—except, perhaps, for a grizzly bear. Similar to the way surfers today call sharks “the man in a gray suit,” trappers referred to grizzly bears “Old Ephraim.”

 Similar to the way surfers today call sharks “the man in a gray suit,” trappers referred to grizzly bears “Old Ephraim.” In 1823, Glass met Old Ephraim, in an encounter that made him one of the most famous of mountain men. He had already had a rough trip, having been shot in a battle with the Arikara tribe—called “Rees,” as those who have seen the movie may remember—on the shores of the Missouri River.

The losses in battle caused Glass’s trapping party to split up, and Glass to join a team of men and horses heading west over land. Glass ventured hunting ahead of his group, in the Grand River Valley of present-day South Dakota. There, he encountered a female grizzly with her cubs. According to Dolin, before Glass could prepare his rifle, the bear reared up, grabbed him by his throat and shoulder, slammed him on the ground, and “bit off a chunk of his flesh, and turned to feed it to her cubs.”

Glass’s cohorts arrived in time to kill the bear, but not before Glass was beaten, bruised, and bleeding profusely. The group’s leader, Rocky Mountain Fur Company founder Andrew Henry, determined moving Glass was not an option. He offered a reward to two men—veteran woodsman John Fitzgerald and, accounts suggest, a 19-year-old named James Bridger—to keep vigil over the hunter until he passed away, and give him a proper burial.

Left for dead

But Hugh Glass wouldn’t die. After five days, the men abandoned him, and took Glass’s tomahawk, knife, flint, and beloved hunting rifle with them—essentially sabotaging any hope for survival. They returned to their party and lied, saying Glass was dead and had a proper burial.

Glass, meanwhile, began to recover his strength. He foraged for berries and insects and drank spring water for at least 10 days, until he found a pack of wolves eating a buffalo calf, and scared them away (as you do). Fueled by buffalo protein and the promise of vengeance, Glass made it to the nearest trading post—some 350 miles from where he had been left—and kept moving in pursuit of his abandoners.

Spoiler ahead

After several more Arikara attacks, Glass finally found Fitzgerald, one of the men who had left him for dead, by then was enlisted in the army. Glass knew punishment would be swift if he murdered a soldier, so he reasoned with Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, recovered his stolen rifle, and moved on.

Some would say that Glass’s greatest legacy was one that The Revenant didn’t respect.

“Not only had Hugh done a great thing in crawling back to safety after he was almost killed, but after he had figured out who had deserted him, he chased them down, caught them, and then … let them go,” Frederick Manfred, the late author of the 1954 biographical novel Lord Grizzly, said in a South Dakota Historical Society account. “That was an act that put him above Achilles. In fact, Hugh Glass had performed his heroics while completely alone. Achilles always had a contingent of Greek warriors nearby.”

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