If you haven’t seen the “The Revenant,” nominated for 12 Oscars, you’ve probably heard about the mythologized performance of Best Actor-hungry Leonardo DiCaprio who went to great lengths to make his performance as the wild and ferocious frontiersman Hugh Glass believable.
He ate raw bison liver! He slept in animal carcasses! He had to learn every timbre of a grunt imaginable! It was grueling. And that’s not even the part where he’s (fictionally) attacked by a bear and left for dead.
The part you don’t know? Hugh Glass’ real-life story is inextricably linked to St. Louis—in fact, it is where he started the expedition featured in "The Revenant."
On Friday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” historian Jay Buckley, an associate professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, discussed the movie’s connection to St. Louis and the fur trapping expeditions of General William Ashley and Major Andrew Henry. In the movie, Henry is portrayed by actor Domhall Gleeson, who some of you may know from the most recent Star Wars film.
Buckley said that though the movie embellishes Glass’ story, the grain of truth about the bear attack is certainly factual. He said that 20 years prior, when Lewis and Clark went on their expedition they had encountered at least 100 grizzly bears and killed over 30 themselves. When they returned to St. Louis in 1806, they brought those stories with them and inspired a whole generation of St. Louisans to get involved in the fur trade farther West.
“By 1820 or so, there were two individuals: One was William Ashley, the lieutenant governor to Alexander McNair, the first state governor of Missouri, and he had prior partnered with Andrew Henry through salt and lead mining operations. They advertised in the paper for enterprising young men who would travel up the Missouri river for one, two or three years to hunt fur. These 100 men joined the expedition and travelled up the Missouri River.”
The company they formed was called Ashley’s Hundred and would later be known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
“When you study the fur trade, it was a difficult life but it was a way you could make a living,” Buckley said. “If you were successful and could avoid losing your furs in the river, being attacked by Indians, killed by grizzlies or frozen by Mother Nature, you could make a successful career of it. That’s why Ashley got involved. He wanted to get the cash so he could run for Missouri governor.”
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Hugh Glass was one of the frontiersmen that responded to that advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser in 1822, alongside Jedediah Smith and William and Milton Sublette. The latter would go on to their own version of St. Louis fame. They set out along the Missouri River toward Yellowstone with Ashley and Henry that year.
Eventually the group encountered trouble with the Native American tribes of the area and had to retreat until a punitive campaign was carried out against the tribes in 1823. By that time, Ashley returned to St. Louis to refuel supplies. Henry set out with Hugh Glass further. And that’s when the infamous bear attack happened.
“There are four main accounts of Hugh Glass’ story,” said Buckley. “Only one member with the expedition wrote down the story and it is briefest account.”
Essentially, he wrote that a member of the party was “almost torn to pieces” by a white bear and he survived without a gun. Later, however, Glass recounted the tale himself to two other people. After seeing the movie, Buckley believes that it was based on the account of George Yount, a trapper from Taos.
The legend of Hugh Glass grew in the minds of people across the country and was published in newspapers describing his miraculous survival.
General Ashley’s repute, and his coffers from the fur trade, continued to grow as well. He would continue to go on fur trading expeditions until 1826, documenting them in his travel journals. Buckley recently wrote a journal article about General Ashley’s journal and the process of discovery and restoration at the Campbell House Museum, in St. Louis. Robert Campbell was General Ashley’s clerk and had preserved the journal for him. It describes his last trip to the Rocky Mountains.
After he sold the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to Jedediah Smith, Ashley went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1831-1834. In 1836 ran for Governor and lost badly. Today, you can find his grave in Cooper County, Missouri, overlooking the Missouri River.
If you would like to see the Ashley’s journal in person, it is on display at the Campbell House Museum, 1508 Locust St, St. Louis, Mo., 63103. There you can also learn more about the Campbell family involvement in the fur trade.
If you would like to learn more about the fact and the fiction of The Revenant, check out this fantastic blog post from History vs. Hollywood.
Kudos to Steve Harloe Mills' post in the St. Louis, Mo History Facebook group for enlightening us about this piece of history.
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