Here Lies Hugh Glass : A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation
How one man's tale of survival and revenge transformed the American West
In the summer of 1823, a hunter named Hugh Glass was brutally mauled by a grizzly bear in the brush along a tributary of the Yellowstone River. She bit his head, punctured his throat, and ripped hunks from his body. Two comrades stayed with him at first, but soon abandoned him to the wilds. But Glass wouldn't die. He crawled and heaved his way to safety, then vowed revenge on those who had left him for dead.
It all sounds too epic to be true, more like a campfire tale than actual history. And with good reason--nearly all we know of this story comes from secondhand accounts published in journals and magazines that promised readers back east stories of the "true" untamed West. In Here Lies Hugh Glass, the acclaimed Western historian Jon T. Coleman delves into these often contradictory accounts, looking for both the real Hugh Glass and the myth that made him something more. The Glass who emerges provides a rich, eye-opening look at the trials of life on the early frontier. At the same time, the stories told about Glass offer a window onto the imagined frontier as it developed in the minds of a young nation. These and other stories inspired a generation of Americans to go West in search of fortune and adventure. Written in engaging, vivid prose with a healthy dose of humor throughout, Here Lies Hugh Glass is a triumph.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Hill and Wang
April 01, 2012
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Here Lies Hugh Glass by Jon T. Coleman
THE METAPHYSICS OF HUGH HUNTING
Hugh Glass strode into history upright and proud, a skilled gunman answering a want ad that promised adventure. Or he staggered into view, drunk, smelling like befouled dog. Either entrance works.
In the winter of 1823, Glass answered William Ashley's call for one hundred men to travel to the Rocky Mountains. Ashley placed an ad in the St. Louis newspapers and sent recruiters into the city's "grog shops and other sinks of degredation." Like most turning points in Glass's life, this one frustrates clear description. There's no person here--no brain to weigh options; no spirit to desire money, fame, or a change of scenery; not even a stomach to fill with pork and whiskey. The news of the expedition reached Glass; he joined.1
His absence from the written record confirmed his status as a regular guy. Ordinariness hid him in the crowd of working-class males who farmed, mined, boated, hunted, and soldiered along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the early nineteenth century. These men washed onto the docks in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans looking for wages and entertainment. Sometimes they drank too much and gouged out each other's eyes, but in general they led lives of unremarkable toil.
Except that's not exactly true. The workers of the Mississippi drainage inspired plenty of words. People noted their behavior and especially their bodies. Some heard and retold their stories. Yet all this print, while bountiful, said little about the interior life of individual persons. Two sorts of writers described the West's laboring population; they both snatched workers' bodies for their own purposes, neither caring overmuch about the psychology of their subjects. The first, the semiprofessionals, seized upon western working males to sell copy back East. These literati had a taste for boatmen and backwoodsmen, and they often turned them into dumb, violent, and gleeful stereotypes. The second group of authors encouraged readers to actually nab working bodies. The composers of runaway advertisements, court documents, arrest warrants, and public warnings detailed the physical appearance, the behavioral quirks, even the speech patterns of some laborers. With divergent audiences and goals, these authors crafted a literature that split workers in two: they jettisoned personality in favor of metaphysics and physiques.
The semiprofessionals transported workers into the realm of abstraction where they became hollowed-out regional types, masculine icons, and racial metaphors addressing such heady concerns as nationalism, truth, faith, charity, and reason. The subscribers for runaway ads undercut the personhood of laborers in the opposite direction. They stuck to the physical, describing scars, skin color, haircuts, and crippling injuries. Neither type of author gives me what I want: the opinions and motivations of one worker, a hunter named Hugh Glass. But their words are all that's left of the men and women of his class, the grog-shop compatriots with whom he shared his life. And the words we are left with underscore the problems, the confusion, and the unrest the laboring classes created for their masters, employers, and would-be chroniclers. The snatchers did not descend on these people because they were easy marks. On the contrary, it was the workers' unruliness--their tendency to run away, assume false identities, fib, and make fun of their superiors--that made them the targets of literature.
* * *
The authors William Ashley and James Clyman stood closest to Glass in the months before he embarked for the West. Ashley composed the words that attracted his labor, while Clyman described the social timber of the men who responded to the ad, headlined "For the Rocky Mountains."2
The year before, in 1822, Ashley crafted a differently worded advertisement for the St. Louis newspapers. Instead of a geographic location--the Rockies--this one opened with a reference to character:
Enterprising Young Men
The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.--For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.
Wm. H. Ashley3
"Enterprising Young Men." The phrase exuded optimism, action, and reward. It captured the democratic zest of territorial expansion in Jacksonian America. In the West, vigorous youths could seize the wealth and stature denied them in the East, where rich and powerful men clogged cities like Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Farther west, in unplanted space, little men could still grow big with enough enterprise.
The 1822 advertisement attracted several historic employees, Jedediah Smith, Mike Fink, and Jim Bridger among them, and, years later, it drew the attention of several historians. The ad surfaced in biographies of mountain men as well as studies of St. Louis and the fur trade. Historians zeroed in on the idea of "enterprise." To many, the phrase unlocked the trappers, revealing their place in early-nineteenth-century America. As young men of enterprise, they typified rather than defied their times. However oddly dressed in animal skins, they sought money, titles, property, political appointments, loving wives, and manly reputations. They were small businessmen, bourgeois capitalists, more like store clerks and stockbrokers than white savages.4
A convincing argument. But then why did Ashley drop such an appropriate and telling phrase when he wrote the 1823 ad that attracted Glass? The "For the Rocky Mountains" notice made no mention of youthful go-getters. Instead of "Enterprising Young Men," Ashley simply wanted "hunters." The shift in terminology may have reflected the lessons he had learned during his inaugural year in the fur trade. The previous spring, he and Henry lost ten thousand dollars' worth of trade goods and supplies when a tree branch sank their keelboat. The craft was named the Enterprize, and its loss hurt. Ashley needed to round up another hundred men in 1823 so that he could reverse their fortunes. Given his straits, the word "enterprise" may have depressed rather than buoyed the general. It no longer suited the business of killing animals for their pelts in the Rocky Mountains.
His word choice may have reflected other lessons as well. In 1823, Ashley knew his labor pool better than he had the year before, and experience may have taught him that "hunter" would attract more employees than "Enterprising Young Men." The chance to shoot animals ranked high in Jedediah Smith's reasons for joining Ashley in 1822. He wrote in his journal that he engaged "to go ... as a hunter," and as the party worked its way up the Missouri, Smith was pleased that Ashley "kept [him] constantly hunting to which I was no means averse." Tracking game freed Smith from the "dull monotony" of moving the boats upriver and "enabled [him] to enjoy the full novelty of the scene."