While the grizzly bear has become an iconic symbol of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, few realize its historic habitat extended from the Dakotas west to California. It may then surprise moviegoers that fur trapper Hugh Glass, played by Leonard DiCaprio in The Revenant, gets brutally mauled by a grizzly bear in South Dakota in 1823.
The epic tale, filmed in British Columbia, Libby, Montana, and Argentina, follows the rugged trapper after his hunting party leaves him behind to die. Crawling miles to civilization, he endures relentless hardship with the aim of exacting vengeance on those who abandoned him.
Behind the scenes, DiCaprio has told media outlets the remote locations and frigid temperatures ⎯ the movie was film only in natural light during winter ⎯ was one of the most difficult films he has done. Those same factors led some crewmembers to walk off the set. Which begs the questions: have we modern-day Americans lost our ability to rough it in the wild? And who was the real Hugh Glass?
The answer to the first question is arguably yes. And the second? Because no direct eyewitness accounts of the bear attack exist, much of Glass’s story — like frontiersman before and after him — is legend. His story, embellished with tales of pirate and Indian kidnappings, has inspired countless campfire stories, newspaper articles, books and two films in the 183 years since his death.
What most sources agree upon is that Glass was about 40 when he joined the Ashley-Henry fur trapping expedition in the spring of 1823. Five months later, he was attacked by a grizzly bear near the forks of the Grand River in northwestern South Dakota, according to an account in American Cowboy. While Glass tried to fight off the bear, expedition members came to his rescue and killed the bear, but not before the bear left him gravely injured.
Thinking Glass’ death was imminent, two expedition members, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald, apparently stayed with Glass to give him a Christian burial, according to HistoryvsHollywood.com. Some accounts say the two were fearful of getting too far behind while others say they feared encroaching Indians. Whatever the reason, the two men took the dying man’s weapons and left him.
But Glass miraculously survived. Stories vary on how far Glass traveled to get to civilization, ranging from 100 to more than 200 miles. But when he reached Fort Henry, he found Bridger but spared his life, according American Cowboy.
Glass worked as a hunter after his death-defying journey. He died in 1833 after Aricara Indians attacked him and his two companions at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. While the river begins near Yellowstone National Park, Glass died hundreds of miles downstream where it empties into the Missouri River.