Hugh Glass was born in Pennsylvania to Irish parents in 1783. Little is known of his early life, but various legends tell of him being a sailor, a pirate and an honorary Pawnee Indian.
In 1822, Glass responded to an item in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advisor, placed by General William Ashley, calling for a corps of 100 men to “Ascend the River Missouri” as part of a fur trading venture to find new trapping routes. He had been living in the western wilderness for some years and was much experienced in hunting and trapping.
The expedition planned to head up the Missouri River in longboats to Grand River in South Dakota and then on to Yellowstone. Near the junction with the Laramie River they went ashore to trade with what they believed to be friendly Pawnee Indians. When they discovered that the group were in fact Arickara, they fled to their boats and paddled to the far shore with the Indians swimming after them. Two of the group were killed and Glass was wounded, the group then returned to Missouri where they regrouped and again set out for Fort Henry on the Yellowstone.
By August 1823, the group had reached the rivers’ fork near present day Perkins County. Glass was out hunting game when he came across a female grizzly bear with two cubs. Before he could raise his rifle the fiercely protective bear charged and threw him to the ground, raking him with her 3 inch claws and causing dreadful injuries. Despite this, Glass fought back repeatedly stabbing the bear with his hunting knife until his companions arrived and found him almost unconscious, whereupon they shot the bear and pulled its body off him. He had sustained terrible injuries, his leg was broken and his back and neck had been ripped open in the struggle.
The group’s leader, Andrew Henry, did not believe that Glass could survive his injuries and after bandaging his wounds, asked for volunteers to stay with the wounded man until he died and then catch up with the main party. John Fitzpatrick and the seventeen year old Jim Bridger elected to stay and, as the main group moved off, began digging a grave in the belief that Glass would not last the night.
The events that followed cannot be confirmed, but Bridger and Fitzpatrick later related that Glass was still alive after three days, but they panicked when a band of hostile Indians were seen approaching the camp.
They tossed Glass into the open grave, covered him with a bearskin and, after taking his rifle, knife and other pieces of his kit, left him for dead. When they caught up with the main party they said that Glass had died. Glass was not dead however, and regained consciousness to a grim situation. He was alone in hostile territory and over 200 miles from the nearest help in Fort Kiowa. He had a broken leg and festering wounds on his scalp and the flesh on his back had been torn away revealing his ribs. His only protection was the bearskin.
Somehow he managed to reset his own broken leg and began to crawl towards the Cheyenne River, some 100 miles away. He was racked with fever, but survived on roots and berries. He later related how he laid on some rotten animal remains so as to have the maggots eat the dead flesh on his back which probably helped him avoid gangrene. He also managed to drive some young wolves from the carcass of a dead bison and ate the raw meat.
Throughout his ordeal he was driven on by his thirst for revenge against the two men who had deserted him. It took him two months to reach the Cheyenne River where he somehow managed to build a raft from a fallen tree and was carried downstream. He then encountered some friendly Indians who fed him and sewed a piece of bearskin to his back to protect his wounds. He then continued on to the Missouri and eventually reached Fort Kiowa.
It took Glass many months to recover from his injuries, after which, he set out to find the Bridger and Fitzpatrick. He eventually caught up with Bridger near the mouth of the Bighorn River and confronted him. Bridger, now nineteen years old, explained how he had thought Glass was near death and with the hostile Indians nearby, reckoned his only chance was to flee. He said that the pair took the rifle and equipment with them to confirm to their comrades that he was truly dead and knew that no frontiersman would ever leave a wounded man without weapons.
It is said that Glass forgave Bridger in view of his youth, but did take back his rifle. He later discovered that Fitzpatrick had joined the US Army and constrained himself from revenge as the penalty for killing a US soldier was death.
Glass then went back to the frontier and again earned a living as a trapper and fur trader. He got work as a hunter for the garrison at Fort Union, but in the winter of 1833, he and two companions were attacked by Arickara Indians as they hunted near the Yellowstone River.
Interestingly, in April of that year, some fur trappers in the region met a group of Indians who tried to pass themselves off as members of the friendly Minitaris tribe, but a trapper called Johnson Gardner recognised a rifle carried by one Indian as the very one that Glass had got back from Bridger. The Indians were seized and discovered to be Arickara, whereupon they were shot in revenge for the death of Hugh Glass.