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A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation

by Jon T. Coleman

Pub Date: May 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8090-5459-6
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An inadvertent American archetype comes in for thoughtful consideration in the hands of Coleman (History/Notre Dame Univ.; Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, 2004).

Hugh Glass had no idea he’d be a figure in the history books. A sort of entry-level mountain man in the early days of American exploration in the West, he “approached grizzly bears and bosses with the same disreputable grin.” One of those grizzly bears mutilated him so badly that it was highly unlikely he would survive. Andrew Henry, his boss on a trapping expedition along the Missouri River, left two men to bury Glass. The two men fled when a party of Indians approached, but Glass didn’t die. Instead, he crawled and hobbled for 38 days eastward to the nearest American outpost, swearing to avenge himself on the men who had abandoned him. Richard Harris did a fine job as a wronged man based on Glass in the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness, which figures at turns in Coleman’s vigorous narrative. But Glass, writes the author, turns up in countless other places in the larger story of the American West, an illustration of his staying power as a symbol of an ordinary guy who “merely endured.” It’s not exactly news that the history of the West is peppered with myth and legend spun out precisely to convince other ordinary guys to enter into the dangerous business of taming the frontier. Coleman doesn’t pretend otherwise, instead picking apart the tale of Glass to determine what can be called factual with any confidence. The answer is—well, perhaps not much, though, as Coleman wisely notes, “[t]he truth of these stories matters less than their coincidences.”

Good storytelling matched with appropriate historical skepticism—a useful model for examining other 10-gallon yarns of westward expansion.