Hugh Glass: The Irishman who inspired the Revenant

The frontiersman who inspired ’The Revenant’ is said to have been Irish — but Jonathan deBurca Butler points out how little we really know about Hugh Glass
Hugh Glass: The Irishman who inspired the Revenant

This month, the great and the good of Hollywood will gather for their annual love-in at the Oscars. As always, there will be a lot of attention on the best actor category. Many believe that it is a foregone conclusion, with Leonardo di Caprio deemed a shoo-in for his role as trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant.

Whether diCaprio wins or not, his visceral portrayal has stoked an interest in the man his character is supposedly based on. Glass, who is said to have roamed the great American interior in the early 19th century, is becoming a household name.

But what do we actually know about this woolly old mountain man and his exploits? Some Irish newspapers, no doubt emboldened by the unprecedented number of Irish nominations at this year’s awards, introduced many of their mainly positive reviews and blurbs of The Revenant as a movie about an Irish trapper. But before we go finding the village he was born in and raising a glass to our long-lost Glass in the local pub, it’s worth examining the facts. And the facts are we know very little about Glass’s early life.

“So far no records have come to light on Glass’s birth place and origins,” says Clay Landry, historian at The Mountain Man Museum in Pinedale, Wyoming. “So there is no real evidence as to his place of birth and rearing. There is a great deal of speculation regarding his life adventures, both at sea and on land. He was supposedly born in the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania sometime around 1783, although the exact date and the precise location are unknown.”

As Landry points out, the only primary source we have relating to Glass’s origins dates from 1825, a full 42 years after he was supposedly born. A newspaper article from June of that year headlined ‘Missouri Trapper’ published in a newspaper called The Port Folio reflected upon the quandary of Glass’s origins: “Whether old Ireland, or Scotch-Irish Pennsylvania, claims the honour of his nativity, I have not ascertained with precision,” wrote its author. The Scotch or Scots Irish were Irish-born or Irish residents that had previous Scots ancestry.

A cursory glance at the surname Glass throws up numerous examples in and around the Ulster counties closest to Stranrear. There were, too, many Irishmen at the time whose adventurous spirit took them out into the wilds of the frontier and many names that crop up in stories relating to Glass, are unmistakably Irish.

Indeed, one figure who was central to Glass’s story is a woodsman by the name of John FitzGerald.

During an expedition to find an overland route through the Rocky Mountains, Glass, the hired huntsman, had been sent forward to shoot game for that evening’s supper when he stumbled upon a grizzly bear and her two cubs. He was either too slow to react or the bear was far too fast. He was attacked and mauled. His colleagues rushed to his aid and managed to shoot the bear but it was feared it was too late.

“His condition was far from enviable,” wrote one contemporary. “He had received several dangerous wounds. His whole body was bruised and mangled.” After carrying Glass for two days, the group leader, Major Andrew Henry, decided it was time to move on. The territory was crawling with hostile Indians. He offered a reward of $80 to two men who would stay with Glass. John FitzGerald, put himself forward along with a man of 19. The pair stayed with Glass another five days before taking his musket, most of his personal effects and abandoning him. Glass’s will had other designs.

“Retaining a slight hold upon life,” continues the contemporary, “[Glass] crawled with great difficulty to a spring which was within a few yards where he lay for 10 days. During this period he subsisted upon cherries that hung over the spring. Acquiring, by slow degrees, a little strength, he now set off for Fort Kiawa, a trading establishment on the Missouri River, 350 miles distant. It required no ordinary portion of fortitude to crawl to the end of such a journey through hostile country without fire arms, with scarcely strength to drag one limb after the other…”

Not everyone believed Glass’s tales. After all he had already escaped a pirate ship, an Indian tribe had adopted him, and he would go on to overcome more close shaves, including “three poisonous arrows in his back”.

As with his birth, nobody knows for sure about his death. In a 1839 newspaper article, Edmund Flagg noted that “a party of four Erickeraw Indians came to the encampment of a company of hunters on the banks of the Powee River, and on one of these was seen several articles of clothing, which, from their peculiar character were known to have belonged to Glass”.

The trapper had been missing for months. Flagg concluded by stating Glass “was never again heard of”.

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