In August 1823, old frontiersman Hugh Glass was scouting ahead for a fur trapping expedition in South Dakota when he surprised a grizzly bear mother with her two cubs. The bear charged him immediately, knocking his rifle away and mauling him badly. Glass drew his knife and fought the grizzly hand-to-hand (maybe I should say hand to paw?), stabbing it repeatedly as it clawed and bit him. Hearing his screams, two trapping partners soon arrived and found him laying unconscious on top of the bear in a ghastly mess of human and animal blood. They finished off the dying bear with a rifle shot to the head, then took Glass with them back to their camp. Expedition leader Andrew Henry took a good look at the mangled mess of a man and announced that he would soon die of his injuries. Henry asked two trappers to stay with Glass until he died, give him a good burial, and then rejoin the group.
Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald volunteered to stay behind with Glass and began to dig his grave. What happened next is uncertain. The two men later claimed that they fled for their lives after hostile Arikaree Indians discovered them, but there is no evidence of that. They soon caught up to the rest of the group heading to Yellowstone and reported that Hugh Glass was dead. However, the old mountain man did not die—after an unknown period of time he woke up in his shallow grave, under a thin layer of dirt and leaves. All his weapons, equipment, and protective clothing were gone, taken by the two men responsible for his burial. His leg was broken, and the rest of him was hardly better off. The bear attack had cut him so badly it exposed rib bones on his backside. He had lost a lot of blood, and his wounds were festering. Alone and defenseless, he was more than 200 miles away from the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa. He set his own broken leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide that had covered him in the grave, and started crawling.
It took Glass six weeks of crawling on his hands and knees to reach the Cheyenne River, 100 miles away from his grave. The bear had nearly torn off his scalp. He suffered from fever and advanced stages of infection. To prevent gangrene from progressing in his wounds he lay back on rotting logs and let the maggots eat his dead flesh away. Too weak to hunt or fish, he survived mostly on wild berries, roots, and other edible plants. Once he was able to scare a couple of wolves away from a bison they had killed. He ate some of the bison’s raw meat himself, still alone, dragging his broken leg along with him. When he finally reached the Cheyenne river, he built a raft from a large fallen tree and floated down the river. Along the way he encountered friendly Sioux who fed him and helped tend his wounds. Eventually he succeeded in floating in his dead tree all the way to Fort Kiowa.
Hugh Glass later admitted that he was motivated to survive only by revenge. After months of recovery at Fort Kiowa, he set out to kill the two men who had abandoned him. Glass found Jim Bridger at a trading post on the Yellowstone river. Bridger was only 19 years old at the time, and his youth saved him—Glass couldn’t bring himself to kill the terrified youngster. He set out to find the second man, and nearly a year after the fight with the grizzly he did find John Fitzgerald, confronting him in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Fitzgerald had joined the US Army, and although Glass demanded his head, the military would not allow a civilian to execute a soldier. Knowing that the punishment for murdering a soldier was death, Glass gave up on his mission of vengeance and spared Fitzgerald’s life as well. He accepted a purse of money collected by soldiers who sympathized with his story, snatched his rifle back from the man who had left him to die, and walked away. Glass lived for another decade as a trapper, fur trader, and professional hunter. When he was finally killed in an Indian attack in 1833, he was still carrying the same rifle that the bear had knocked away from him up in South Dakota.