“Whatever the details, it was a marvelous show of stamina and courage.”
That’s the final sentence of a monument that pays tribute to Hugh Glass, a frontiersman that legend claimed had “returned from the dead” after a grisly bear attack. The memorial stands innocuously atop a random hill overlooking the Shadehill Reservoir, just south of Lemmon, S.D. The story of Glass, who was portrayed onscreen by Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, is the basis for the recent film, “The Revenant.” Accounts handed down through history place Glass’s legendary bear attack near Shadehill, but one local historian provided an interesting theory that he was actually left for dead right in Bowman County. By definition, a revenant is a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead. That’s how Glass placed his mark on history: being left for dead following a gruesome bear mauling and making his way hundreds of miles through dangerous territory to a Montana fort in the early 1800s. “The Revenant,” released in theaters on Christmas Day, is director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious retelling of the story of Hugh Glass. It was based on the 2002 novel, “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,” by Michael Punke. A critic darling and an Academy Award nominee, the film’s storytelling depth was established partially through breathtaking cinematography and a haunting musical score. While an epic narrative of survival on the frontier — and ultimately of bloodthirsty revenge per the film — much of the actual story in the film was periled by Hollywood’s typical, heavy-handed embellishment. Details from the original incident were left out; inaccurate details were added that seemed to hype the original story of Glass. But that’s pretty acceptable because, despite an obvious effort to sell movie tickets, the filmmakers achieved the creation of a beautiful, prolific film and at least included some points of the actual premise. But there were still some striking strays from the actual story. In the end, which was completely altered for the film, Glass forgave the younger of his two fellow trappers — Jim Bridger — that left him for dead and spared the life of the other, John Fitzgerald. He also did not have a son or at least not one with him on his expedition, according to historical accounts. Those familiar with the story’s actual setting — the Dakotas and part of Montana — need look beyond the director’s decision to set the action in a tall mountain range. (The film was actually shot in Canada.) The historical account of Glass’s bear attack and subsequent travails is nevertheless larger-than-life. Though he hadn’t yet seen the film or read the novel, Pioneer Trails Regional Museum Director Dean Pearson was familiar with the tale of Glass. While Pearson had heard details of the film from various people, he relied on historical details from several books he read regarding the expedition of Gen. William Henry Ashley’s party, of which Glass was a member. Ashley, with Capt. Andrew Henry, was co-owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. “Some of it was all right, but a lot of it didn’t match the actual history,” Pearson said of the film. Glass’s real story began with the conflict that first faced Ashley’s group. Ashley led a group of 100 men as they traversed along the Missouri River in 1823 in search of hides for a fur-trading venture. There was a problem with one of the group’s two boats when they arrived at an Arikara (A-rick-a-raw) village near the mouth of the Grand River as it meets the Missouri. Part of the group decided on a different route towards the Yellowstone River as the Native Americans made it difficult for the boats to pass. “Rather than go all the way up and around the bend of the Missouri, then back down the Yellowstone, they would just follow the Grand River,” Pearson explained. “Then, when the Grand River ended, they would just cut across country until they hit the Powder River.” The group headed up the Grand River, which was where Glass was famously attacked by a large Grizzly bear trying to protect her cubs. He was nearly fatally mauled. According to Pearson, after Glass was attacked, the group transported him on a makeshift cot and proceeded down to the headwaters of the Grand, “which nobody knows exactly where that is.” That’s where historical accounts became depleted. The monument in Shadehill further described Glass’s experience — he dragged himself to the stream, sustained himself on seasonal fruit and meat obtained when he drove off wolves from a buffalo calf they had drowned. And “by some means and by an uncertain route” Glass appeared at Ft. Kiowa, below the Big Bend, 190 miles as the crow flies from the Forks of Grand River. That much is verified history, according to the monument, which was erected in part by the South Dakota Historical Society. But the problem is that the Grand River has two notable forks, one to the north and one at its south. The south fork turns into a creek situated in Buffalo, S.D.; the north fork winds through the present day Bowman Haley Dam and ends south of Rhame. In Pearson’s opinion, the group likely took the north fork because the south would put the group on the south side of the Cave Hills. If the group of men had followed the Grand River to its headwaters, they would have had to pass through Bowman County. And that, per Pearson’s theory, is where the group could have abandoned Glass and ultimately left him for dead. “If that would have been at the headwaters of the Grand (River), then technically the spot where they left him could’ve been in Bowman County,” he said. The rest of the party continued on their journey west. In most cases, the early explorers stayed along the creeks because of the game looking for water and for their own water source. “Maybe they followed the Grand then followed the Little Missouri north,” Pearson suggested. “Or maybe the O’Fallon creek into the Powder River.” According to the story, Glass crawled back down the Grand River until he reached the fork of the Missouri River. He returned about six weeks later to Fort Kiowa in eastern South Dakota, about 200 miles away. He rested and adopted a new mission: retribution. He ultimately travelled to a camp at the mouth of the Bighorn River in Montana. He met back up with Ashley’s group and reenlisted with the company. After forgiving Bridger, Glass set out to find Fitzgerald, who he learned had enlisted in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald returned Glass’s stolen rifle when he was confronted. His life was spared, allegedly because Glass was wary of the penalty for killing a soldier. About 10 years later Glass was killed by Native Americans near present day Williston. He was 51 years old. Regardless if Bowman County actually was the setting for Hugh Glass to become a revenant, a tall legend in western folklore or simply an avid adventurer, Pearson said having Ashley’s group of furriers cross the county was interesting. The group, including Bridger, would go on to become some of the greatest known mountain men that led much of the exploration of western North America.