- Robert L. Gale
Glass, Hugh (?–1833), fur trapper., was a Few facts are known for certain about his early life. His place of birth is unknown. According to the historian and novelist James Hall, who published an account of Glass in Port Folio (Mar. 1825), Glass was of Irish ancestry. The fine literary quality of the only known communication from his pen, written in 1823, permits the conclusion that he was reasonably well educated. His early years have become the stuff of legend. According to reminiscences of a fellow fur trapper named George C. Yount (edited by Charles L. Camp, California Historical Quarterly ), Glass was a sailor in the Gulf of Mexico, was captured by the famous buccaneer Jean Laffite and his gang, became a fellow pirate to avoid being murdered, and later escaped onto Texas soil, went inland, and was captured by Native Americans identified as Pawnees.
It is certain that Glass joined the fur-trading expedition organized by William Henry Ashley, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, to proceed from St. Louis up the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. On 16 January 1823 Ashley advertised for a hundred men to accompany his Missouri River expedition. On 7 March 1823 the group began their adventure. Among their number were Ashley, his partner Major Andrew Henry, James Bridger (then only nineteen but later a famous guide and trader), the celebrated keelboatman Mike Fink, John S. Fitzgerald, the ill-starred explorer Jedediah Smith, and Glass.
The event by which Glass achieved heroic stature soon followed. Ashley’s party built a post—called Fort Henry—on the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in Montana and sought in early summer to trade with the Arikara Indians for horses to replace some they had lost, but in July they were attacked instead. Eleven Americans were killed and thirteen were wounded, including Glass. On 16 August 1823 Henry began to lead a thirteen-man party, Glass among them, overland to seek reinforcements for the endangered post. Perhaps four or five days later, near the location of present-day Grand River, South Dakota, Glass while a little distance from immediate help was badly mauled by a grizzly bear. Since the group had to keep moving, two volunteers—Bridger and Fitzgerald—stayed behind to watch the lacerated victim die and then bury him. But he lasted too long. So the volunteers, whom he could hear discussing his case, took his rifle and other equipment, abandoned him, caught up with their comrades, and reported his demise.
Glass told his story to all who would listen, they told others, and the legend steadily grew. The four most detailed accounts of the bear attack and its aftermath, based partly on second-hand information and differing in some of their details, are by Hall, by Yount, by soldier-memoirist Philip St. George Cooke (St. Louis Beacon, 2 and 9 Dec. 1830), and by journalist/travel writer Edmund Flagg (Louisville Literary News-Letter, 7 Sept. 1839). It seems that Glass’s anger sustained him as he crawled 150 to 300 miles down along the Grand River to the Missouri, eating berries and meat from decaying buffalo carcasses on the way. Aided by some friendly Sioux, he finally reached Fort Kiowa, near the confluence of the Missouri and White rivers, in what is now South Dakota. Seeking revenge against Bridger and Fitzgerald, Glass went back up the Missouri River with some traders on their boat, happened to go ashore minutes before they were attacked and killed by Arikaras, visited some friendly Mandans, and got to Fort Henry in October, only to find it deserted. He pressed on up the Yellowstone to the Big Horn, found Bridger—and seems to have promptly forgiven him on account of his youth. Learning that Fitzgerald was at Fort Atkinson, across from Council Bluffs, Iowa, Glass and four friends pursued him by way of the Powder and Platte rivers. On the Platte River, the party was attacked by Arikaras, and only Glass and one other escaped death. (Glass was erroneously reported killed in the St. Louis Enquirer on 7 June 1824.) According to the most reliable account, when Glass finally got to the fort he learned that Fitzgerald had enlisted in the army in April 1824 and was therefore safe. Another report adds that Glass found Fitzgerald still at the fort, recovered his rifle, and forgave the man. It is estimated that Glass walked and paddled more than 2,000 miles from the time of the bear attack until he finally reached Fort Atkinson.
Next Glass went into partnership to trade mass-produced American goods, including tinware, for embroidered textiles, furs, leather goods, and silverware, and in the process traveled from the western settlements of the Missouri as far down as Santa Fe. After several unsuccessful months on the dangerous trail, he led a trapping party, probably beginning in spring 1825, from Taos north into Ute Indian territory. Another adventure occurred soon thereafter, in 1825 or perhaps 1826, on an unidentified river, perhaps the Snake, near Oregon. Glass and his companions generously sought to give some of their excess beaver meat to a Shoshone squaw on the shore but upon approaching her were shot at by braves nearby. In the exchange, one trapper was mortally wounded, and a brave was killed. Glass sought to comfort his wounded friend and had a metal arrowhead buried in his back, near his spine, for his pains. The surviving white party escaped by river, and Glass allegedly traveled some 700 miles before finding a man back in Taos knowledgeable enough to cut out the arrowhead with a razor. Glass returned to trapping and hunting, probably in 1826. He attended the 1827 trappers’ rendezvous at Bear Lake, Idaho.
In the fall of 1828 Glass spoke for his fellow independent trappers at a meeting with price-fixing representatives of the American Fur Company, at Fort Floyd, by the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Later he became a meat hunter out of the fort (by then called Fort Union), until toward the end of 1832, at which time he and some friends went trapping along the Yellowstone near Fort Cass and below the mouth of the Big Horn. The party was attacked by Arikaras. Glass and two companions were killed. Whether Glass ever married or had any children is not recorded. It has been said that his only tangible legacy was his favorite rifle, now lost.
Myth-making about Glass began at once, and the full truth will never be known. He has been accorded spectacular twentieth-century treatment, most notably in two superb works of literature. The Song of Hugh Glass (1915), by John G. Neihardt, is a vigorous poem in praise of the Missouri River, the heroes of the American fur trade, and especially Glass, the brave, silent, and aging hunter. Lord Grizzly (1954), by Frederick Manfred, is a partly fictional narrative of Glass’s spiritual growth away from a desire for revenge.
The only known letter by Glass, concerning the Arikara attack of July 1823, was stolen from the South Dakota Historical Society, but John G. Neihardt published a photograph of it in his Splendid Wayfaring (1920). Stanley Vestal, Jim Bridger, Mountain Man: A Biography (1946), devotes a chapter to Glass and his treatment by and of Bridger. Dale L. Morgan includes much incidental information on Glass both in Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953) and in The West of William H. Ashley, 1822–1838 (1964). John Myers Myers begins his Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man: The Saga of Hugh Glass (1963) with a careful survey of oral and written foundations of the Glass legend and also treats its detractors. Aubrey L. Haines’s “Hugh Glass,” in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West: Biographical Sketches of the Participants . . . , ed. LeRoy R. Hafen, vol. 6 (1968), pp. 161–71, is a succinct biographical essay. Lucile F. Aly in John G. Neihardt (1976) and Joseph M. Flora in Frederick Manfred (1974) discuss the treatment of the Glass legend by their respective subjects.
- Hall, James (1793-1868), writer and editor
- Yount, George Concepción (04 May 1794–05 October 1865), fur trapper and farmer
- Laffite, Jean (fl. 1809–1820), pirate
- Ashley, William Henry (1778-1838), fur trader and politician
- Henry, Andrew (1775-1833), miner, fur trader, and explorer
- Bridger, James (1804-1881), fur trapper and trader, explorer, and scout
- Fink, Mike (1770-1823), scout, keelboatman, and trapper
- Smith, Jedediah Strong (6 Jan. 1799?–27 May 1831), fur trader and explorer
- Cooke, Philip St. George (1809-1895), soldier and author
- Flagg, Edmund (1815-1890), author and civil servant
- Neihardt, John Gneisenau (1881-1973), poet laureate of Nebraska