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The Wild West: (Un)true grit

Op-Ed

Tall tales were a big part of the American West, to the everlasting frustration of the region's historians.

August 19, 2012|By Jon T. Coleman
  • Tall tales were a big part of the American West, to the everlasting frustration of the region's historians, who must try to sort out fiction from fact. Above: "Roping a Grizzly" by Charles M. Russell
Tall tales were a big part of the American West, to the everlasting frustration… (Buffalo Bill Historical…)

In the summer of 1823, according to newspaper accounts, a female grizzly bear sprang from the bushes along a tributary of the Yellowstone River and tore into a trapper and fur trader named Hugh Glass. She slashed his face, munched his scalp and removed a fist-sized hunk from his posterior. Members of Glass' expedition ran to his aid and killed the animal, but his prognosis looked grim. Two men were posted to stay behind and bury him when he succumbed to the inevitable. After six days, the duo abandoned him, still comatose and gurgling. They took his gun, knife and ammunition.

But Glass didn't die. When he came to his senses and realized he was alone, he began to crawl and then limp the 150 miles to the nearest trading post to get his revenge on the men who left him.

That, in essence, was the story printed first in a Philadelphia journal in 1825 and then picked up by newspapers across the country. In the century and a half since he was first written about, Glass has appeared in memoirs, poems, novels and even in a 1975 major motion picture, "Man in the Wilderness."

But the story, like Glass, is full of holes. I have now read every scrap of evidence surrounding Hugh Glass and his ordeal and have come to the conclusion that he existed mostly as a figment of American imaginations. There is almost no historical record of Glass, much less of his Lazarus-like reappearance after a grizzly attack. Only one of his letters has survived, and it makes no mention of the story. None who witnessed his mauling wrote about the incident.

Instead, the tale that persisted through generations was drawn entirely from second-, third- and fourth-hand reports. Compared to the leading figures of the Western fur trade — mountain men like Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger — Glass barely registered. He left so little evidence that separating fact and fiction is virtually impossible.

But I do not see this as a problem.

Tall tales were a big part of the American West, to the everlasting frustration of the region's historians, who must try to sort out fiction from fact. It often turns out that our most cherished historical beliefs can't take scrutiny. For example, historians have long noted that the West, far from being a playground of rugged individualists, depended heavily on aid from the federal government. But myth sometimes creates a reality sturdier than fact.

The persistence of the mythic frontier exposes the limits of the academic sport of deconstruction. We can reveal how people gathered material, concocted story lines and spread fantasies through newspapers, dime novels and movies. We can show in great detail how Americans crafted frontier myths for entertainment, glory and masculine rejuvenation. But even showing that the ideas were largely fiction has not unmade those ideas. Unlike mold spores and vampires, myths tolerate sunlight. That is the power of frontier whoppers.

So what explains the longevity of Hugh Glass? He survived a brutal bear attack and lived to get his revenge because that is what we wanted him to do. Nationalism fueled our desire. Americans built their nation on the margins, and they looked to the geographic and social fringes for stories demonstrating the nation's grit and superiority. Glass lingered in popular culture because the story that grew up around him exemplified something America liked in itself. The fact that he was really a loser by most measures, having neither domestic bliss nor financial success, didn't matter. Nor did it matter that he was, as acquaintances described him, a cranky old man.

The mythmakers used Glass to illustrate a particular version of Western nature. Through his ordeal, they traced the origins of their nation to a place beyond history, a mythic space outside the normal flow of time. The terrain that Glass traversed during his ordeal was a wilderness wiped clean. Indians, rival European powers, mixed fur trade families might not have existed. Through Glass' story, Americans could imagine a continent free for the taking. And, since he left no record, there was nothing to contradict that view.

All of which makes the ending of Glass' story something of a puzzle. After being robbed and left for dead, after struggling to get back to civilization, the story goes, Glass found his betrayers. And what did he do? Did he shoot them or gut them with a Bowie knife? No, he lectured them. Talk was his revenge, an odd turn of events considering how most mythic Westerns end in brutal action. After telling people what he went through and what he thought of them, he walked away satisfied.

We will never know what Glass said, if he said anything at all. Still, I see hope in the symbolism of his verbal revenge. Glass served the nation, but he was a famously defiant underling. He fought bosses along with bears. Claiming the last word fit his cheeky reputation more than the script of the mythic West.

The myths that came out of the American West may thwart intellectual deconstruction, but they can always tell us more about the people — all the people — who created them.

Jon T. Coleman is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the author of "Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation."

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