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He suffered greatly when she struck. There was no time for him to get his rifle, so he fought back with his knife; but a mad grizzly wasn’t just a sparring partner, and soon enough Hugh Glass was lacerated and bloody and maimed. The bear was dead, Glass well on his way there himself.
The boss asked for volunteers to stay with the dying man because no man should be alone in his hour of real need. Bridger and John Fitzgerald kindly raised their hands.
But Glass didn’t die. He wouldn’t.
Three days later, Bridger and Fitzgerald grew fearful, what with Lakota all over the place, most of them on the hunt for scalps. But Glass kept breathing, his wounds stanched but his body still a crumpled, broken mess.
Finally, scared for their own lives, they left him behind, alone, bloody and dying, or so they thought. He had no more use for his rifle, his knife, his belongings, they figured, so they took all of that with him. There were Indians all around–what choice did they have? I mean, the man was almost scalped and his ribs poked out of his back where the grizzly had ripped away his flesh.
It’s the stuff myth is made of, and this story is one of them, one of the great myths of the American west–the legend of Hugh Glass. He crawled, literally, for miles, subsisting on what he could find with his broken hands on the ground in front of him. Crawled.
What sustained him, he said, was revenge. He was going to kill Bridger and Fitzgerald, who’d left him alone, unarmed, bloody and broken, at death’s door. Each day, each hour, he took another straight shot of pure hate.
With the help of friendly Indians who fashioned a hide to cover his still-open wounds, with a diet of bugs and berries and whatever he could reach to eat, including a bison calf a pack of wolves had just brought down, Hugh Glass crawled all the way to the Cheyenne River, where he fashioned a raft and floated down to Fort Kiowa, four miles north of what is Chamberlain, South Dakota, today. He’d crawled for two long months and 200 miles.
It took him more months to recover, but he went back west, to the wilderness, still driven by hate. Some time later, he found Jim Bridger at a trading post on the Yellowstone. For reasons no one really knows, Hugh Glass, whose soul was black with hate, somehow let him live. What had sustained him during an ordeal that has become legend simply disappeared.
Just a few miles south of Lemmon, South Dakota, there’s a monument to this unearthly survival tale, the story of Hugh Glass.
But if you’d like to read more, have a look at Frederick Manfred’s Lord Grizzly, a runner up for the National Book Award in 1954, sixty years ago, when it was published. Manfred once told me that once upon a time he’d sat on the back step of his family’s farm house, the milking done, and asked himself what stories this land could tell, what stories his people, the Dutch and Frisians who’d settled the area, simply didn’t know.
One of them, he discovered, was the story of Hugh Glass, a story that became Lord Grizzly.
He also told me that he couldn’t understand why the people from whom he’d come, those pious Dutch and Frisian immigrants to Siouxland, a place he claimed to have named himself, didn’t trust the novelist who’d grown up among them–Western Christian High, Calvin College. After all, Lord Grizzly, his most famous novel, was finally all about forgiveness.
I read the Hugh Glass story again, first time in years, in Robert Utley’s A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific and couldn’t help but remember my old friend Fred Manfred, Feike Feikema, who died in 1994, twenty years ago, as mythic in his own way as was the storied trapper.
I think Feike Feikema would like me retelling it again. After all, Hugh Glass, a story of forgiveness, belongs to the land.