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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The True Story Behind The Revenant

Updated: May 4, 2023

One of my all-time favorite movies is the multiple-Oscar-winning frontier movie, The Revenant (meaning one who returns, especially from the dead). It is one of the most realistic, gritty, and magnificently beautiful depictions of life in the early frontier. Viewing the movie, you can see, hear, smell, even feel the reality of that harsh but exciting existence. I also love the movie because it is based on a true story—one of the most amazing frontier stories ever told—of frontiersman Hugh Glass and his epic survival in the wilderness after being mauled nearly to death by a grizzly, then left for dead by his companions.

Glass was born to immigrant Irish parents in Pennsylvania and at an early age took off to seek adventure. In 1822 he joined General William Ashley’s corps of 100 men to ascend to the Missouri River as part of a fur-trading venture. Many of the men of the corps would later become famous frontiersmen, including James Beckwourth, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jim Bridger, in addition to Hugh Glass.

In the first year of the expedition, Glass was shot in the leg by attacking Arikara. Frontiersmen were successful in trading with many tribes and cultivated cordial relationships, but the Arikara remained distrustful of and hostile to the early whites. The next year the corps set out to explore the Yellowstone River when Glass, scouting for game for the expedition near Grand River (in today’s Perkins County, South Dakota) when he surprised a she-bear with two cubs. She charged, picked him up and shook him several times, pinned him to the ground, clawed him and took his flesh in her jaws, ripping his back and chest open, leaving the ribs exposed. He was left mortally mauled.

Below is a famous bear attack scene in The Revenant.

VIDEO-The Revenant bear attack scene:

The corps carried Glass on a litter for two days, but slowed the pace. Two volunteers, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger, offered to stay with him until he died. They later claimed that they began digging his grave, when Arikara attacked. They grabbed all the arms and equipment, including Glass’s rifle and knife, and left him for dead, completely defenseless. Later, when they caught up with the corps, Fitzgerald and Bridger reported to the general that Glass had died.

But the story does not end there. Glass regained consciousness. He had lost a great deal of blood, his leg was broken, his back mutilated and his chest ripped open. He was 200 miles from the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa. Glass set the bone on his own leg and bound his wounds with grass and a mud poultice. Cloaked in a bear hide that had been left on him as a shroud , he began crawling toward Fort Kiowa. He allowed the maggots to thrive in his wounds, eating the rotting flesh to prevent gangrene.

When he reached the Cheyenne River, about half way to Fort Kiowa, he fashioned a crude raft of tree limbs bound with willow and grasses and floated the rest of the way to Fort Kiowa. He survived on roots and wild berries.

The 2015 movie, The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, retells the survival story with gritty realism and gory detail against a backdrop of the West’s magnificent grandeur. The movie received 12 nominations and won Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography. The film was shot in twelve locations in three countries: Canada, the United States, and Argentina. Filming was done under notoriously harsh conditions.

In the movie, along Glass’s journey, he is attacked by Arikara and escapes on an Appaloosa horse he had absconded with and, in a wild chase, his horse leaps over a cliff with a waterfall to its death. The waterfall scene was filmed at the Kootenai Falls near Libby, Montana. In order to keep from freezing to death, DiCaprio as Glass slits open his horse’s underbelly, pulls out all the innards and crawls into the carcass.

Glass would make it to Fort Kiowa. It would take him six weeks. There he convalesced, then set out to find Bridger and Fitzgerald. He found both men, but ultimately forgave Bridger for his youth, believing Fitzgerald was the culprit.

He later found Fitzgerald at Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, as a soldier. There, Glass was told by an Army captain he would be hung for killing an Army soldier. Fitzgerald was forced to return Glass’s gun and compensate him with $300, an immense amount of money for the day. Glass, however, told Fitzgerald that if he ever left the Army, he'd kill him.

Glass went on to work for General Ashley for ten more years, until he was attacked by his old enemies, The Arikara, and killed in 1833 on the Yellowstone River. Today, a powerful monument—an iron sculpture depicting Glass fighting the grizzly—stands near the site of his mauling. But his legacy lives on, a paean to the miraculous grit and fortitude of the early frontiersmen who paved the way for western expansion in the American frontier.

You may enjoy these related posts:

-The True Life of Grizzly Adams

-Grizzlies, Lords of the Frontier

-Capturing the Steely Spirit of the West

"The True Story Behind The Revenant" was first published on Facebook and on March 21, 2020

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1 Comment

Dan Coplan
Dan Coplan
Feb 25

Why no mention of “Lord Grizzly” (Fredrick Manfred).


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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