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[Audio] Hugh Glass and the True Story Behind 'The Revenant'

Courtesy of Ted Belue
"Caught off Guard" (Courtesy David Wright)

"There were a lot of ways to die out there," says historian Ted Belue, a history professor at Murray State University, discussing the true story of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass, subject of the new film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy is set in 1823 Montana and South Dakota. He speaks with Todd Hatton on Sounds Good about the history of the fur trade and why "malcontents" like Glass were drawn to the novelty of adventure and "hairy dollars."

Seeking 100 Adventurous Men

By 1823, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been over for nearly 20 years, the fur trade was in full swing (beginning around 1807 with Manuel Lisa) and William Ashley had recently published an advertisement in a St. Louis newspaper seeking 100 adventurous young men to travel into the wilderness hunting beaver pelt.

The beaver trade was great money and critical in Europe, where every man would have worn a beaver hat. In America, there was a new driving philosophy of Manifest Destiny, where it was God's will to move west. A young bustling nation with an incremental population increase, America was surrounded by foreign influence and competition from the Canadian Hudson's Bay Company, Russians coming from Alaska, British Columbia and French influence and Spanish in the southwest. Americans felt behooved to journey west and the mountain men were the vanguard, Belue says.

Hugh Glass was different

Hugh Glass was different among this group of adventurers. His historical record is faint until around 1823, but he was a little older than the typical trapper. The average age was early 20s - these were young guys from Kentucky or Missouri and 25-30 percent were French. Glass was a company man and a 'malcontent' who records describe as "hard to contain." He tended to buck against authority. Evidence shows he was at one time a pirate with Jean Lafitte in Barataria (near New Orleans). He escaped this life and headed to Kansas, but was captured by the Pawnee people and nearly killed. He later gets back to St. Louis and goes up the Missouri River in 1823.

The Fur Trappers

The life of a fur trapper was far from the romantic ideal often portrayed in films. They ate a diet of six to eight pounds of meat per day. He was a lean and sinewy kind of guy. The basic job up the Missouri was 'cordelling,' tying a large rope in front of the keelboat that the group of men would pull upstream against the river. Once they arrived at their site, they broke into small trapping parties. The typical brigade was 30 to 50 men and the parties would be three to five men. Beaver traps weighed six or seven pounds. They'd press the pelts and take them back to St. Louis.

At the apex of trappers were the "free trapper" who trapped wherever they wanted and sold their pelts with whomever they chose to do business. Most were company men and employees and below them were the "pork eaters" who did the skinning and fleshing of the pelts. There were a lot of ways to die out there, Belue says, from grizzly bears to venomous reptiles, to falling off of things.

Those drawn to this life were usually "malcontents who weren't suited to life in the Northeast," Belue says. To some degree they were drawn by the notion and novelty of adventure and the money. At this time, beaver trade was king. "There are really two key words to settling America," Belue says, "You had the Bible early on and the beaver." Beaver pelts were referred to as "hairy dollars." Economically, dollars came and went in the East, so there was some degree of striking it rich in the West. The possibility of living unrestrained and striking it rich was very appealing to some.

Hugh's Fate

In 1823, Glass managed to survive being mauled numerous times by a grizzly bear. He was told to stay with the members of his party but broke off on his own. While eating some berries, he stumbled onto some cubs and the mother was not far behind. By the time members of his camp caught up with him, he was being mauled having already shot the bear once. The other members shot the bear, but it continued to maul Glass. Eventually, he was pulled to safety but a Native American tribe was after them. Some of the men were paid to look after Glass, but took his things and ditched him, fearing for their own safety. He crawled approximately 200 mils out of the wilderness and six weeks later is held by Indians. Eventually, he gets to a French Fort and arrives as a gaunt, emaciated figure. A decade later, he was killed in 1833 by the Arikara tribe in North Dakota.

Vicarious Sense of Adventure

We're drawn to these stories today for their vicarious sense of adventure, Belue says, likening the stories to the survival reality shows seen on television. These are still characters fighting against a mighty force, for instance Hugh Glass "going against" Han Solo and Princess Leia being released on the heels of Star Wars: The Force Awakens; also Herman Melville's Moby Dick being recently interpreted in the film In The Heart of the Sea. Instead of looking down the street into the unknown and venturing out, we'll watch figures, fictional or otherwise safely on the screen surrounded by modern comforts.

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Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
Todd Hatton hails from Paducah, Kentucky, where he got into radio under the auspices of the late, great John Stewart of WKYX while a student at Paducah Community College. He also worked at WKMS in the reel-to-reel tape days of the early 1990s before running off first to San Francisco, then Orlando in search of something to do when he grew up. He received his MFA in Creative Writing at Murray State University. He vigorously resists adulthood and watches his wife, Angela Hatton, save the world one plastic bottle at a time.
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