The incredible story of Hugh Glass — as seen in the 2015 movie “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio — paints an amazingly accurate picture of life as a trapper in the early 1800s American West, except about his gun.
Hollywood almost got it right, but not quite.
The film’s photography was outstanding — showing how a mountain man’s life in the rugged wilderness in those days was one of unrelenting hardship, danger and loneliness. It was the trapper’s firearm that made it possible to survive.
“The Revenant” was about how trapper Glass was savagely mauled by a grizzly bear and left to die alone by his companions: John S. Fitzgerald and 19-year-old Jim Bridger, both of whom believed he had no hope of living. They were paid to stay with him until he died — he didn’t — but after five days they left him anyway, fearing they’d be found by hostile Arikara Indians.
They departed with all his possessions — including an ornate rifle made by two brothers in Missouri named Hawken.
For those who saw the award-winning movie, here’s what didn’t happen in Hugh Glass’s real life, according to Steve Friedman in the Hollywood Reporter: “He did not get chased off a cliff, nor did he crawl inside a horse carcass for warmth. He did not meet a Native American with a sly sense of humor who tossed him a buffalo liver. Perhaps he ate some liver on his sojourn, but the truth is, he ate far more dog. Dog eating was not such a big deal back then…”
The true story of the mountain man’s determination to survive his harrowing journey back to civilization was to reclaim his beloved Hawken rifle. It wasn’t to wreak revenge on his companions who heartlessly abandoned him, as in the movie.
Hugh Glass was born near Philadelphia around 1780. When he was about 15 years of age and apprenticed to a gunmaker named Henry Wolf, he ran away. Wolf put an ad in a newspaper offering a reward of six pence to anyone returning the teenager. No one did.
The story of the rifle starts in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the four Hawken brothers learned gunsmithing while working at the federal armory.
In 1816, the family moved to Xenia, Ohio, where one brother, Samuel, opened a gun shop.
After Sam’s wife died in 1822, he moved to St. Louis, where his brother, Jacob, had started his own gun manufacturing business.
The two brothers soon established a reputation for making fine firearms, each hand-made. The Hawken rifle would be bought by such frontier personalities as scout Kit Carson, mountain man Jedediah Smith, fur trader William Henry Ashley, and later, famed Wild West showman Buffalo Bill and President Teddy Roosevelt.
The Hawken brothers ran their shop from 1820 to 1858. Later owners William S. Hawken, William L. Watt, and J. P. Gemmer continued making and selling quality rifles bearing the “Hawken” name until 1915, when Gemmer closed the business and retired.
Before the Hawken was the “Long Rifle” — AKA Kentucky Rifle or Pennsylvania Rifle — used both for hunting and fighting. The 54- to 70-inch firearm was developed in America about 1700 and had longer barrels than European rifles. It was used during the French and Indians War (1754-53), the American Revolution, War of 1812, and about 100 years of conflict with the American Indians.
But it wasn’t powerful enough to down the big-game buffalo, elk or grizzly out West.
Then came the Hawken.
The Hawken was a muzzle-loading rifle that quickly became a favorite on the prairies and in the Rocky Mountains in the first half of the 1800s. It was described as the “Plains Rifle,” “Buffalo Gun” or “Fur Trapper’s Gun.” (Technically “guns” don’t have rifling, but are smooth-bore like shotguns.)
Muzzle-loading means stuffing gun powder and a wad down the barrel, then loading a lead ball — mostly .50 caliber for the Hawken, though they also had other calibers — and tamping it in place with a rod. Pulling the trigger releases the hammer that detonates the cap, igniting the powder and sending the ball on its way.
Users liked the Hawken because it was a quality gun with an average weight of 10 and a half pounds, light enough to carry all the time, and it was accurate and could down big targets at long range.
Jacob Hawken died in 1849, and his brother, Samuel, retired from rifle-making around 1855, turning the business over to Sam’s son, William.
By 1848, the Sharps rifle became the favorite because of its increased accuracy, and its ability to hold a stack of pelleted primers that were automatically loaded into the “nipple” each time the trigger was pulled and the hammer fell, instead of tediously loading them one at a time.
The Sharps was the long-range rifle used by Tom Selleck’s character in the 1990 movie “Quigley Down Under.”
Both the Union and Confederate armies used a military model of the Sharps during the Civil War. But it was soon followed by the iconic rapid-fire Winchester 73 that would be called “The Gun That Won the West.”
At Fort Henry in Montana, Hugh Glass found Jim Bridger, the young man that had abandoned him after the grizzly attack. Instead of taking revenge, he forgave him. Then Glass went looking for Fitzgerald, who also abandoned him, and took his Hawken rifle back.
An account in American Rifleman says, “The one thing on earth that Glass knew better than his own heart, body, mind and soul, was his rifle.”
Philip Schreier, senior curator at the National Firearms Museum, agrees, writing that Glass was “a man who, although physically shattered, speechless, racked with lacerations and infection, manages to crawl over a period of four months and 300 miles through unfriendly frozen wilderness back to safety with one quest on his mind. He wanted his rifle back.”
In an 1825 article, James Hall writes that Glass arrived at Fort Atkinson, near today’s Omaha, where he found Fitzgerald — who had joined the Army. Glass then decided not to pursue any thoughts of revenge and incur the wrath of the fort commander. “This shielded the delinquent from chastisement,” Hall wrote. “The commanding officer at the post ordered his rifle to be restored.”
Glass was also paid $300 for all his pain and suffering. Many stories about him since then support the narrative that recovering his rifle was always his main motivation.
For the next 10 years, Glass roamed the West, trapping and hunting from Taos, N.M., to Williston, N.D., — where he mostly hunted bighorn sheep to feed the garrison at Fort Union.
In the spring of 1833, Glass, Edward Rose and Hilain Menard left Fort Cass to trap beaver on the Yellowstone River. They were ambushed by Arikara Indians while crossing the frozen river. All three men were killed, scalped and plundered.
They left the bodies, but took the Hawken rifle.
Recovering that rifle at Fort Cass had given Hugh Glass another 10 years of life, but in the end, on a frozen river in Montana, it couldn’t save him.
Another famed frontiersman, James P. Beckwourth, said he was at Fort Cass at that time and had found the bodies of the three trappers on the ice. Though his account is questionable, he told of Hugh Glass’s burial:
“We returned together and buried the three men, amid the most terrible scenes that I had ever witnessed. The crying was truly appalling. The three men were well known, and highly esteemed by the Crows. When their bodies were lowered to their last resting-place, numberless fingers were voluntarily chopped off and thrown into the graves; hair and trinkets of every description were also contributed, and the graves were finally filled up.”
Stories about mountain men are fascinating reading because of the high drama of rugged men doing their job and staying alive in the face of extreme hardship and danger. But historical accounts usually lack solid evidence because few of those hardy souls kept journals. Campfire tales told by trappers eventually were retold in print by writers long on the sensational and short on scholarship.
The story of Hugh Glass is one of those narratives. He really existed, but we’re only reasonably sure about the bear, the epic journey to safety, and the Hawken rifle.
All the rest is popcorn entertainment.
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where is Hugh Glass buried?
No one knows where Hugh Glass is buried. He was killed by Arikara Indians on the frozen Yellowstone River in Montana, and though fellow trapper James Beckwourth writes a colorful account of his burial, he doesn’t say where. Today, a small stone and brass monument plaque dedicated to him sits on the edge of a South Dakota lake at the end of an unpaved road near the town of Lemmon.
Jim Bridger later…
After his misdeed at age 19 of abandoning Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger became one of America’s greatest mountain men, trapper, scout and guide. He also helped mediate conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers moving into tribal lands. He had a strong constitution which helped him survive and become a frontier legend. He died on his farm near Kansas City on July 17, 1881 at the age of 77.
The epic journey…
“As he traveled Glass’ wounds began to rot and fester so he famously laid down on a rotting log and let maggots feast on the necrotized flesh, likely saving his own life. As he traveled he survived off of vegetation and at one point the carcass of a downed buffalo. Eventually he was helped by a group of friendly natives who tended his wounds and sent him on his way with a bit of equipment.
“After two months of traveling through the wild, Glass arrived at Fort Kiowa and spent a great deal of time recuperating.”
The Revenant awards…
In 2016, The Revenant received three Academy Awards: Best Actor, Leonardo DiCaprio; Best Director, Alejandro G. Ińárritu; and Beat Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki
At the 88th Annual Academy Awards, Ińárritu won the Best Director award for the second time in a row, and Emmanuel Lubezki won for the third time in a row the award for Best Cinematography