Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

Hugh Glass and the Grizzly Bear

"As Slick as a Peeled Onion"

The Blackfeet remained firm enemies of the invading trappers and fur-hunters. John Colter's adventures were the beginning of a long and bitter war. The Crows made friends with the white men, and only stole their horses and traps and other "plunder;" but to a Crow this was no crime. The Sioux and Cheyennes and Arapahos and Utes frequently declared that their hearts were good. The Blackfeet never softened. They were many in number, and proud and scornful, and did not stoop even to pretend friendship.

The Three Forks region became known as one of the most dangerous places in the beaver country. All the Upper Missouri River, from the Yellowstone River on, was dangerous by reason of the widely roaming Blackfeet.

Of course, the American trapper and trader did not stay away, on this account. Manuel Lisa and others had formed the Missouri Fur Company, in 1809. In 1822 the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was organized, at St. Louis, and advertised for "one hundred young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years," trapping.

It proved to be a famous company. It had on its rolls Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith the Knight in Buckskin, the Sublette brothers, Jim Beckwourth the French mulatto who lived with the Crows as chief, and scores of others, mainly young men, genuine Americans of both French and Anglo-Saxon blood. Its career did not cease until the summer of 1834.

The two men who organized the company were General William Henry Ashley of the Missouri militia, and first lieutenant-governor of the State; and Major Andrew Henry who had helped to found the Missouri Fur Company and now was mining for lead in Washington County southwest of St. Louis.

Major Henry already had served in the Blackfeet country. He was there at the Three Forks in the spring of 1810, when five trappers had been killed or captured and John Colter had decided to pull out. Next, George Drouillard, who had been a hunter with the Lewis and Clark party (another of John Colter's old companions), and whose father Pierre Drouillard had rescued Simon Kenton from the Shawnees, was killed while fighting bravely. Finally the Blackfeet had driven all the trappers from that region. Major Henry led his remaining men west across the mountains, to the Snake River in Idaho. There on Henry Fork he built a trading-post. It was the first American post west of the Rocky Mountains.

Major Henry returned to St. Louis in 1811. He had met with bad luck in the fur-hunt business, so he went into mining. But the beaver country kept calling to him. He was not yet beaten by the Indians, the snows, the freshets and the hunger.

Therefore in 1822 he started again, for the mouth of the Yellowstone and the Great Falls of the Missouri, farther up. The Assiniboines stole all his horses. He stayed at the mouth of the Yellowstone until he had traded for more, from the Crows; went on to the Great Falls—and the Blackfeet again smashed him and sent him back down-river, minus four good men.

General Ashley was to follow him, with reinforcements of another one hundred young men. He was met by a courier from his partner, asking for horses, horses, horses. He stopped to trade with the Arikaras, in present South Dakota; they suddenly attacked him, rolled him up, and stopped him completely.

He had to drop back, fortify, and call for volunteers to take word to Major Henry that nothing could be done this season until the way had been opened. Jedediah Smith, aged twenty-five, stepped forward. He was of New York State, and had been in the West only two years; had never been farther from St. Louis than this, into the Indian country. But his voice rang true; he wished to learn. General Ashley gave him a French-Canadian of St. Louis as a scout companion, and together they crossed the six hundred miles of vast lonely plains infested by the Arikaras and Sioux and Assiniboines, to Major Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone.

Major Henry's party returned with them, to General Ashley at the mouth of the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. From the United States post at the Lewis and Clark's Council Bluffs, western Iowa of to-day, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Leavenworth (Fort Leavenworth of Kansas is named for him) of the Sixth United States Infantry, hastened up with six companies of regulars, several cannon and three keel boats. Joshua Filcher, president of the Missouri Fur Company, joined him; General Ashley and Major Henry met him with other men; four or five hundred Sioux enlisted—the Sioux hated the Arikaras. And all together (except that the Sioux soon quit, disgusted with the way the white soldiers fought) they battered at the Arikara village from a distance until the enemy announced that it was time to make peace.

Now Major Henry took eighty men and once again set out, with horses and packs, for the Yellowstone, to finish the season. He had a fine company—the pick of the rank and file: Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, William ("Billy") Sublette whom the Indians were to name "Cut Face" and "Left Hand," Davy Jackson, old "Cut Nose" Edward Rose who was half white, one quarter Cherokee and one quarter negro and had been a chief of the Crows, "old" Hugh Glass, and others.

Major Henry, of the dark hair, blue eyes, and fondness for the violin, had only fair luck on this trip. Trapper Hugh Glass had much worse, at the beginning, although he ended well.

He was from Pennsylvania, but was no greenhorn on the beaver trail, or else they would not have called him "old." The title "old" announced that a man was "beaver wise" and "Injun wise." So "old" Hugh Glass was a leather-faced, leather-clad, whiskered veteran of probably not over forty years but of the right experience as a "hivernan"  or "winterer."

The route taken left the Missouri River, to cut across country more to the westward, for the Yellowstone direct. Near evening of the fifth day out they all had turned up the Grand River, still in present South Dakota, and the hunters were riding widely or trudging through the river thickets, looking for meat.

This was elk, deer and buffalo country—also bear country. Those were days when the grizzly bear ranged the plains as far east as the Upper Missouri; and he posed as the monarch of all he surveyed. The Lewis and Clark men had discovered him on their outward trip in 1804-1805; they had brought back astonishing reports of him. He stood almost nine feet tall, on his hind legs; his fore paws were nine inches across; his claws were over four inches long; his tusks were prodigious; his nose as large as that of an ox; and two men could scarcely carry his hide. Eight and ten balls were sometimes required, to kill him; he would run a mile and more, after being shot through the heart; he feared nothing. Captain Lewis declared that he would rather fight two Indians at once, than one "white bear." No such an animal was known in Kentucky.

The great grizzly usually lurked in the willows, wild-plum trees and other brush of the stream courses. Here he made his bed, and from here he charged without warning—afraid not at all of the two-legged enemy and their single-shot, muzzle-loading flint-lock rifles. In spite of his size, he was marvelously quick. Besides, he had a short temper.

Hugh Glass was making his way, this August evening, amidst the tangle of wild plums, berry bushes, and willows along the bank of the Grand. Suddenly he had burst out into a small clearing—a bear's "nest" made by crushing the brush in a circle: and the bear was at home, had heard him coming.

More than that, it was an old she-bear, and a mother bear, lying with her two cubs upon the twigs and sand. Hugh Glass, a careless though a skilled hunter, had met with a surprise. Before he had time to spring back or even to set the hair-trigger of his rifle, she was towering over him: a huge yellowish bulk whose deep-set piggish little eyes glowed greenish with rage, whose white tusks gleamed in a snarling, dripping red mouth, whose stout arms (thicker than his calves) reached for him with their long curved claws.

This alarming sight he saw—and then she grabbed him, with a stroke that nearly scalped him; drew him in to her, lifted him off the ground to hug him, bit him in the throat, and hurling him flat tore a mouthful of flesh from him and gave it to her cubs!

Horrible! Was he to be eaten alive, like a deer? Evidently she looked upon him as a species of animal that might be a tidbit for her family. When she turned to call her cubs and give them the meat she slightly removed her weight from him. With a writhe he scrambled to get away. No use. She was after him at once; so were the cubs, as eager as she. They did not mean that their supper should escape. The whole family commenced to maul him. The mother seized him by the shoulder and straddled him; she bit, the two cubs bit and raked. He was only a toy to them, and being rapidly gashed to ribbons he would have died then and there had not his shouts and the growling of the bears brought help.

First, his hunting partner arrived, hot-foot, with rifle ready. One cub drove him waist deep into the river before a ball finished that young battler. The other men hastened in, summoned by the redoubled cries for help. The old mother grizzly was standing upon Hugh Glass and bellowing defiance. The second cub ran. By several volleys they killed the mother grizzly; then they rolled her off from Trapper Glass and inspected him, to see what they could do.

"Poor old Hugh! He's a goner—he's nigh et up." That was the verdict. He certainly looked like a "goner"—all bloody and mangled, with scarcely an inch of sound skin on his face, body and limbs. He could not see, he was past speaking, he was unable to stand; he only lay and dismally groaned.

They washed him and patched him and bound him as best they might, and took counsel together. They couldn't carry him on; they couldn't send him back; and they couldn't camp here, waiting for him to get well or to die; they had to reach the Henry fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone, with their horses and supplies, before winter.

"If two of you men will stay and nurse Glass, we'll make up a purse to pay for the loss of your fall hunt," Major Henry proposed.

Trapper Fitzgerald, and a seventeen-year-old who is said to have been Jim Bridger, agreed to stay with Hugh Glass and nurse him or bury him. They were given eighty dollars, to cover the beaver fur that they might miss out on. Major Henry left them and the groaning Hugh, and hastened with his other men for the Yellowstone.

It was a dangerous and lonely job. They were two (one of them only seventeen and rather of a green-horn yet); this was Arikara and Sioux country; the Arikaras had shown bad hearts; they fought the Sioux and all friends of the Sioux, the Sioux fought them and all friends of them; and caught by one band or another, white hunters might fare ill. Forty dollars was small pay for risking one's scalp. As for risking it to save a comrade, of course no pay at all was asked. So the money did not figure.

Old Hugh did not grow better; on the contrary, he seemed to grow worse. He was a frightful sight. The teeth and claws of the bears had poisoned him and he was one mass of gaping wounds; lay moaning and raving until his fever weakened him so that he had no strength—couldn't swallow nourishment to keep alive and the men had to sit beside him constantly to brush away the flies.

On the fifth day they gave him up.

"He'll not live the night."

"No. He's goin' fast. It's a wonder he's held out this long, poor Hugh. I never did see a human bein' hang on like him."

"What'll we do, then"

"Wall, youngster, thar's only one thing to do. That's to pull out while we kin, 'fore we lose our ha'r. 'Tis a wonder the Injuns ain't diskivvered us already. Glass is as good as dead, now; but we'll wait till dark."

"I don't feel jest right about leavin' him, Tom," young Jim objected. "'Tain't natteral to desart a man, that way, an' we said we'd stay."

"We said we'd stay to nurse him or bury him, but he's past nursin' an' he ain't quite ripe for buryin', son. He will be, by mornin'; but what difference to him whether he's layin' atop the ground or under the ground? An' that's a matter o' twelve hours to us, an' twelve hours counts a heap, on the Injun trail. The Injuns can't do him any harm. They kin harm us a lot. No; it's time we kin light out, an' if we say he's dead we'll not be lyin', for dead he'll be long 'fore we get to t'other end. Two live men are wuth more'n one dead man, in this country; an' we've done our duty to old Hugh, sech as he is. We'd best take his gun an' fixin's, too; he won't need 'em an' you kin be sartin he wouldn't want the Injuns to have 'em."

When they left, that night, Trapper Glass appeared to be scarcely breathing. He could not possibly last through till morning; and by morning they might be well upon their way. They rode off. It was a mean thing to do—not at all like Jim Bridger if that was young Jim Bridger; but he could not stay alone and they neither of them had any idea that Hugh Glass would be otherwise than dead within a few hours.

When, early in a morning several days afterward, Trapper Hugh opened his tired eyes and gazed weakly around him, he saw nothing astir except the birds and rabbits. He heard nothing. He had faint memory of two companions—knew their names, or thought that he did; but where were they? The campfire ashes were cold; no breakfast smoke arose. He saw no packs, no bedding; the bones of the she-bear were scattered and white and dry.

He called feebly.

"Tom! Jim! Hello! Whar be ye?"

Nobody answered. He tried to sit up; looked for his rifle, felt for his shot-pouch and powder-horn. His two nurses were gone; so were his gun, horn, pouch that held his knife and flint and steel. He had been abandoned; and such a blaze of wrath surged through him that he determined now to live if only to trail those fellows and kill them.

Yes, by thunder, he'd crawl clear to Fort Henry at the Yellowstone and shoot the two in their tracks!

He was too weak to sit or stand, but he managed to draw himself along and find a spring. There he lay, day and night, picking the fruit from the low wild-cherry and buffalo-berry bushes as far as he might reach, and dozing and bathing his wounds; and he got stronger. The tide of life crept higher and higher. Trapper Hugh knew that he was going to live. But he was scarred redly from head to foot, had lost part of his whiskers and part of his hair; was peeled to the bone, in places. What a face he had, although he could not see it!

In about ten days he was ready to travel. The nearest trading-post that he knew of was fully one hundred miles southeast, on the Missouri. That looked like a long, long distance for a man who could not walk straight and had not even a knife. But he was bound to go, get patched up, and find those two villains who had abandoned him—who had left him as dead when he wasn't dead at all!

He managed to find roots, and more berries. At last, on his staggering, slow way, he sighted a late buffalo-calf surrounded by wolves. The wolves killed the calf. He waited until they had dulled their appetites; then waving his arms and shouting he staggered in upon them. He was enough to put almost anything to flight. The wolves dropped their bushy tails and slunk off; and Hugh Glass thankfully "thawed" the raw, warm meat.

He stayed here a short time. He went on, stronger. He came to a deserted Indian village. A few Indian dogs were prowling around. He was very hungry again. He spent two days in coaxing the dogs to him, in order to get his hands upon one. Then he killed it and partly ate it. Living thus, by his wits, like a wild animal or a wild man, he arrived at the trading post near the mouth of the Teton or Mad River, central South Dakota.

But he did not stay long—not even to get patched up. A party of trappers arrived, in a boat from down-river; they were going above, to the Yellowstone—the very spot for which he hankered and where his revenge waited. He embarked. The Arikaras ambushed the boat and killed all the party except Hugh Glass.

They did not get the scalp of old Hugh; no, indeed. He bore a charmed life. He had left the boat, the day before, to make a short cut to Fort Tilton, which lay around a bend. The Arikaras only chased him into the arms of two Mandans; the Mandans took him into Fort Tilton—and that same night, such was his hurry, he set out alone again, on foot, for the Yellowstone and the Andrew Henry fort at the mouth of the Big Horn in Crow and the Blackfoot country.

He did not fear; he believed that nothing could kill him. Nothing had been able to kill him, yet! Thirty-eight days later, or near the close of October, Trapper Glass strode to the gate of the Henry fort at the mouth of the Big Horn, up the Yellowstone.

The sentry stared, agape.

"Who are you?"

"How, yoreself, young feller. Whoopee! Tell 'em hyar's old Hugh Glass, who war et by a grizzly b'ar an' is slick as a peeled onion; an' he wants his gun an' fixin's. Whar's the rascals that stole all my plunder?"

Hugh Glass! A miracle! But he it was.

"We thought you were dead and buried, man!"

"Wall, I ain't, not by a jugful. An' I wants my plunder an' the scalps o' them two villains."

"They aren't here. They're down at Atkinson."

What? Fort Atkinson was the Council Bluffs, on the lower Missouri one thousand miles away.

"I'll git 'em yit," vowed old Hugh. "If I'd only have knowed! I warn't very fur from Atkinson."

In February he started for Atkinson, with four other men. They traveled across country, through central Wyoming, and struck the Platte; paddled down the Platte in hide boats that they made—and ran right into the Arikaras. By night-fall old Hugh found himself again alone; he had lost all four of his comrades (two had been killed before his eyes), and most of his new outfit. But, he said:

"I felt quite rich when I found my knife and steel in my shot pouch. These little fixin's make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles away from anybody or anywhere—all alone among the painters (panthers) and the wild varmints."

In the early spring the buffalo calves are young and senseless. He easily caught them, cut them up, made a fire and cooked the meat; and in June he was at Fort Atkinson.

By this time he had forgiven the youngster. He was willing to believe that the "young feller" wasn't used to trapper ways, and hadn't known any better. But he still bore a grudge against Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was at Atkinson, enlisted in the army. Old Hugh raged and stormed, but did not dare to touch him. They talked it over; Fitz explained why he had left the grizzly bear camp—had stayed five days, at the risk of his own life, until there wasn't any nursing to be done; and when he had gone on Hugh Glass was the same as dead and he ought to have stayed dead. Wasn't that reasonable

Hugh scratched his scarred head and half agreed. The commanding officer ordered that he be given a brand new outfit; whatever he needed. This squared matters, and Trapper Hugh proceeded to entertain the garrison with his tall stories of how he had been "et by a b'ar," and had been chasin' his plunder for ten months, between the lower Missouri and the Yellowstone.

This bear adventure made "Old Glass" a celebrated figure among the traders and trappers of beaver days on the Upper Missouri. As seemed to him, he had earned the right to live forever, in defiance of Injuns and "varmints." But in the winter of 1832-1833 the Arikaras killed him, on the ice of the Yellowstone River, hard by the mouth of the same Big Horn where he had so astonished the Andrew Henry fort nine years before.