While there are few factual details known about Hugh Glass’ early days, there is a great deal of speculation regarding his life adventures, both at sea and on land. He was supposedly born in the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania sometime around 1783, although the exact date and the precise location are unknown. A newspaper article published in The Port Folio reflected upon the quandary of Glass’ origins:
“Whether old Ireland, or Scotch-Irish Pennsylvania, claims the honour of his nativity, I have not ascertained with precision…” –From The Port Folio, Letters From the West, No. XIV, the Missouri Trapper
Historians have deliberated for decades on whether or not Hugh Glass really did live through some very extraordinary experiences, or did he simply have a gift of telling tall tales. There are few individuals who have been convinced that the astonishing incidents in Glass’ life really happened. To date, there is scant evidence to verify Glass’ pirate and Pawnee episodes. However, his Rocky Mountain experiences have been linked to a number of documents that seem to have withstood the test of time. One of the resources believed to be reasonably credible are the memoirs of George C. Yount. Joining the fur trade via the Santa Fe trade in 1825, Yount traveled through the Rocky Mountains claiming to have personally known and befriended Hugh Glass.
Sometime after 1851, Yount recounted his memoirs to a Catholic priest named Reverend Orange Clark, who thought Yount’s stories would make an interesting book. However, it was not until 1923 that paleontologist and historian Charles Lewis Camp edited the “disconnected and unorganized” memoirs recorded by Reverend Clark and published them in the California Historical Society Quarterly.
In his memoirs, Yount evidently recalled Glass expressing his experiences as a pirate. Sometime between the years 1817 and 1820, Glass was reportedly a sailor or possibly the commander of an American ship that was seized by famous French pirate, Jean Lafitte. Glass was likely in his 30s when Lafitte’s band of picaroons boarded his ship and he was given the choice to join their gang or die. Reluctantly, Glass chose piracy over death and lived for the next year in the small pirate colony of Campeachy on Galveston Island, which would later belong to the state of Texas. The port of Campeachy was in a dangerous location as “…the mainland on both sides of Galveston Bay was infested with Karankawa Indians” who were rumored to be cannibals. Whether the Karankawa’s ate human flesh as a source of food, or if it was a ritual to gain the abilities and powers of their enemies, continues to be a debated subject. It was common knowledge at that time Europeans had hostile relations with some Native American tribes. Thus, Europeans would try to avoid encountering those tribes. Campeachy was also surrounded by murky waters where alligators and poisonous snakes lurked, and it was almost impossible to escape.
In his book, The Saga of Hugh Glass, author and historian John Myers Myers wrote that: “Glass implied to George Yount the reality of being a pirate far topped in horror any vision of the trade possible to one who hadn’t been enmeshed in it…there are monstrosities of conduct belonging to a society which has cut itself off from honor and compassion that outsiders can only understand at the price of forced association.”
Clearly, Glass did not enjoy the experience of being a cut-throat pirate. As reported by Reverend Clark, Yount believed Glass to be a God fearing man: “…the cruel murders to be perpetrated daily, – As they shuddered from their inmost souls & shrunk from those deeds of blood, it was impossible for them to conceal from their despotic lord the emotions of their hearts” – The Chronicles of George C. Yount, California Historical State Society, Vol 2 No. 1, April 1923
At some point, because Glass and a companion [name unknown] could not hide their negative feelings about the dreadfulness of pirate life, they were deemed unfit for the work of pirates. While the pirate ship was hiding out in a secluded cove near the coast of what would later become Texas, the pair anxiously awaited their fate and readied themselves for a “hearing before Lafitte following the return to Campeachy from wherever at sea their captain logged them as having gone on strike.”
Glass and his comrade feared that they would both be doomed to the bottom of the sea for their breach of pirate loyalty. Luckily, the evening before their hearing, they found themselves left alone on the ship while the others went ashore. They made hast to capitalize on their good fortune and with a few trade items, jumped ship. After swimming for two miles through dangerous waters, Glass and his compatriot reached the shoreline of the North American mainland, where for a time they lived off creatures in the sea, even poisonous ones.
The men went further inland to avoid the coastline that was inhabited by the Karankawas. Having no maps and limited knowledge of the land that was then the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, they walked in search of a settlement, though unsure of what direction they were traveling and even more uncertain of precisely where they were. Exactly how long Hugh Glass and his companion were traveling northward is unclear, but they made their way 1,000 miles into Indian Territory. Amazingly on their entire trek, they avoided running into any of the Comanche, Osage, and Kiowa tribes who would have readily taken these men’s scalps as a victory.
Unfortunately Glass and his fellow deserter met up with a band of Skiri, or otherwise called Wolf Pawnee (somewhere in the central plains of North America), whose practice it was to offer a human sacrifice in the belief that this ritual would assure them of fertile land and thus an abundant season of crops. After surviving so much together, Glass had to endure watching his friend not only burned at the stake but also being pierced with slivers of burning pine. Today, we can only imagine the horror Glass must have felt with the realization that he too would soon suffer the same fate.
According to John Myers, “because such murders are ritualistic, it is not likely that Hugh’s black bean was promptly drawn. During the period of waiting until another suitable ceremony, moreover, Pawnee practice called for treating the victim well, out of honor the god or spirit to which he would be dedicated.”
After surviving through the terrors he had recently faced, Glass probably could not have even imagined his life would end in such a fashion. Surely, a strong will along with quick thinking and ready wit must have instilled his resolve to survive. In what he thought was his final hour, “… two approached him to strip him of his apparel, the ruling Chief stood by to pierce his skin with the first splinter, which was deemed to royal privilege – Glass thrust his hand into his own bosom & drew form thence a large package of vermillion; an article which the savages value above all price- He gave the packet to the proud & haughty Brave, with an air of respect & affection & bowed his final farewell.”
The chief of the tribe was very impressed and became so convinced that this was a sign from the gods that he proceeded to spare Glass’ life and affectionately adopted him as a son.
In The Saga of Hugh Glass, John Myers advocated, “It is not on record that any Thanksgiving turkey has ever been whisked away from under the raised ax and promoted to the status of a household pet, but if such an event ever does take place it will form the only parallel to this escape-with-honors on the part of Hugh Glass.”
Hugh Glass lived with the Pawnee for several years before joining the fur trade. He fully embraced this unconventional lifestyle including taking a Native American wife, learning what plants and insects were edible, living off the land, and even going to war with his tribe. Undoubtedly Glass must have recalled this practical knowledge as he made his famous 300 mile trek to Ft. Kiowa after being nearly fatally attacked by a grizzly bear in 1823.
To be sure, Glass’ will to survive was shaped by the many dramatic and astounding experiences of his life. Living through the horrors of being an interim Pirate to the good fortune of becoming an adopted son of the Pawnee ultimately set the stage for Hugh Glass to become an unforgettable man in the annals of American history.
See Sources page for the original accounts of the Hugh Glass story…