Here Lies Hugh Glass is the true account of the man behind The Revenant. In it, Jon T. Coleman excavates not just his subject, but also the myth of a nation he unwittingly helped to birth. The following is from his author’s note.
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In Here Lies Hugh Glass, I tell a story about a man famous for nearly being killed by a grizzly bear in the Rocky Mountains in 1823. There’s not much left of this man. He contributed one letter to history. He spoke to people, but the writers who tracked him through twice-removed conversations only disfigured him further with their literary ambitions, calling him America’s Odysseus, a laughable honorific for a working-class guy whose major talent, accident proneness, made him more Homer Simpson than Homeric. Undocumented, the man disappeared into his surroundings. That’s why I picked him. I’m a historian of culture but also of nature, animals, landscapes, biomes, and habitats. Environments intrigue me as much as people.
The story of Hugh Glass and his environments calls into question the central conceit of biographies: that individual human lives tower above all else. Unlike Jesus, Attila the Hun, or Benjamin Franklin, Glass remains almost wholly lost in time. His predilections, his appearance, as well as his opinions are unknowable. His work as a hired hunter rendered him barely visible. Even his saving grace, the regional authors who seized upon the stories of western workers remade by nature to secure national fame, did so for their own purposes. Stripped of his past, his personality, and his individuality, Glass surrendered the lead role in his own drama. He shared the bill with the environments that claimed parts of him.
Glass arrived at the same end as most. Ordinary people tend to vanish. Birth certificates, parish records, and tombstones mark their existence, but the memories, the tastes, the passions, and the individual flourishes, all the hiccups in form, carriage, and delivery that separate one mortal pilgrim from another, erode quickly. Style may be the most perishable substance on earth. Hugh Glass was an ordinary man with exemplary style, and glimmers of his humor and his rebelliousness have withstood the ravages of grizzly bears, hard labor, and literary abduction. Yet the information that has survived evokes as much loss as satisfaction. Forever incomplete, he is a reminder of the deletions awaiting us all.
What follows is more a missing-person report than a biography. But instead of cursing the holes in his paperwork, I intend to plumb the absences surrounding Glass. The gaps in the record open onto his environs; they made him an American environmentalist of a sort. A vocalist rather than a writer, Glass didn’t produce a memorable tome—a Walden, A Sand County Almanac, or a Silent Spring—but he contributed to American environmental thought in his own way. Glass withstood a posse of consumers—the fauna, bosses, and literati out to swallow him—and his staying power leads the history of American environmentalism in new and unsettling directions.
Indeed, Hugh Glass reverses the emphasis and order of the phrase. Instead of highlighting individual thinkers contemplating the nation’s environmental practices and values, he shows how groups of Americans used the violently altered bodies of working-class hunters out West to define their nation. Instead of American environmentalism, Glass serves up environmental Americanism. By stressing the relationship between the environment and nationalism, his story underscores the links between marginal people laboring in far-off places and the rise of American exceptionalism. Americans looked to the outskirts of their society and their population centers to define their nation as unique and chosen for greatness, and Hugh Glass, a hunter physically transformed by nature on the country’s frontier, surfaced as a bit player in a nation-building drama. His ordeals rooted environmental history in the thick of early-nineteenth-century American history.
Americans, of course, were kidding themselves when they imagined that environments created exceptional nations. Neither born nor planted, nations rise and fall on the words, thoughts, and deeds of people. Families, homes, regions, religions, classes, genders, races, and ethnicities bolster and erode national identities. To placate crosshatched loyalties, nation-builders biologized and sanctified the nation, binding it together with myths that suggested the polity had both earthly and otherworldly origins. In 1839, John L. O’Sullivan, the writer, party activist, and coiner of the phrase “manifest destiny,” cobbled together these origin myths in his essay “The Great Nation of Futurity.” God, he wrote, had selected the United States to “smite unto death the tyranny of kings, oligarchs, hierarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good.” O’Sullivan pleaded with American artists to turn away from Europe, ancient Greece, and Rome for instruction and inspiration. Writers especially should look at their own continent to find the “vigorous national heart of America.” The nexus of the nation thrummed in “the wilderness,” where “the great masses—the agricultural and mechanical populations”—worshipped at the “sacred altars of intellectual freedom.” This, O’Sullivan wrote, “was the seed that produced individual equality, and political liberty, as its natural fruits, and this is our true nationality.” God had entrusted America’s awesomeness to the grunts in the sticks.
Hugh Glass, who died six years before O’Sullivan published his essay, would have been surprised that he and his coworkers were founding a nation when they stripped the hides off beavers in the Rocky Mountains. No one mistook their camps for altars, and not all the laborers in them were equal, free, or American. A motley crew gathered in the camps: African American slaves, mulatto freemen, Indian men and women from many tribes, various white Americans from states like Missouri, Illinois, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, French-speaking contract workers (engagés) from St. Louis, Mexican nationals, Canadian voyageurs, and British fur company proles. Hunting in the West mingled races, genders, nations, cultures, and languages. It was an unlikely birthplace of American futurity. Yet, for some nationalists, the riffraff laboring on the political, geographic, and social fringes manifested America’s genius.
I will follow Glass—hunt him if you will—through three environments. But I warn you: Glass didn’t experience them neatly in a row, and neither will you. His cultural, social, and nonhuman environments washed over him as overlapping waves; his battered form will churn to the surface only every so often.
Books, authors, and readers made up Glass’s cultural environment. In 1825, James Hall, a semiprofessional regional author stationed in southern Illinois, latched on to Glass and published a story about his exploits in a Philadelphia literary magazine. A judge and lawyer, Hall resembled other aspiring writers in the towns along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These men hoped to create a market for western American literature, a niche that would allow them to quit their day jobs as clergymen, missionaries, lawyers, bankers, clerks, and printers. They looked to the nation’s hinterlands to find distinctly American source material, and they wrote about the violence done to and committed by frontiersmen.
Bondage and rivers animated Glass’s social environment. Recruited on the wharfs of St. Louis, Glass belonged to a working population that moved up and down the Mississippi River and its feeder streams. Some of these workers sold their labor for wages, but only a minority. Most workers weren’t free. Black slaves, wives, children, apprentices, soldiers, servants, and prisoners received little or no remuneration for their work, and they faced state-sanctioned violence if they disobeyed their masters. Still, many did rebel. Advertisements in newspapers throughout the watershed offered bounties for returned runaways. Rivers connected masters to international markets. They made owning slaves and contracting servants profitable. But the waters transported disgruntled workers as readily as furs, whiskey, hemp, and salted pork. Rivers underpinned and undermined the labor system that mixed coerced and free labor, and as fur companies tried to move this system up the Missouri River and into the Rocky Mountains, bosses and workers constantly renegotiated the terms of their service.
Animals were the central players in Glass’s nonhuman environment. As a hunter, Glass followed, observed, and killed deer, elk, antelope, ducks, bears, raccoons, coyotes, and wolves. Bison robes and beaver pelts drew him west; horses and mules carried him there. The meat of all beasts, including horses and dogs, sustained him. His relationships with Native Americans, his employers, and his coworkers revolved around animal fur and flesh. He wore the skins of animals, ingested their tissue, and acquired their status. To many observers, western fur trappers looked, smelled, and were no better than animals. Hunting stories often transposed hunters and their quarry, and this reversal of identity underwrote the hunters’ nationalistic potential.
The physical transformation of laboring bodies promised the emergence of a national body. Environmental Americanism brought a measure of fame to an obscure hunter and his environments. Environmental Americanism taught a nation to take pride and pleasure in catastrophic workplace injuries. Environmental Americanism valorized white male survivalists, editing women and people of color out of the nation’s origin stories. Environmental Americanism converted multicultural, multiracial (including multiple versions of blackness and whiteness), multigendered, and multinational fur hunting expeditions into the seedbeds of a unified white male American identity.
Then again, perhaps the missing parts of Hugh Glass can help me salvage an alternative past, one that blends humor and rambunctiousness to upend expectations rather than certify destinies. We’ll see. Glass rose from the grave once; he might have another round in him.
Jon T. Coleman is a professor of American history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation and Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, which won the W. Turrentine Jackson Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize. Coleman lives in South Bend, Indiana.
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