Jim Bridger And the Grizzly

08-06-2007A_CopyAlthough the story of Hugh Glass is rooted primarily around him, many other major men became prolific parts of this epic tale. One of these men has become very close to the Gallatin Valley. This mountain man was Jim Bridger, the rough man of western lore who among many accomplishments is revered as one of the greatest mountain men. But how does this tie into the story of Hugh Glass’ story of survival that resulted in Bridger becoming who he was? Through out this telling of tales, I hope to weave a glimpse of innocence and forgiveness.

Hopefully by now a brief knowledge of Major Ashley’s expedition that gathered over 100 independent mountain men is known. The mountain man was typically known for working alone or with the Native Americans who lived in the areas they trapped. Amazingly a corps was put together and within these corps a few names should immediately stick out to most. To anyone living in the states north of Utah and west of the Dakotas ,the names Glass and Bridger should be familiar. Bridger ,a man who has schools, mountains, and ski resorts named after him, is in many texts referred to as one of the greatest mountain men ever. Until recently I hadn’t heard of Hugh Glass myself. Because of his epic tale of survival, however, I wish I would have known about it a long time ago.

The quick story of Hugh Glass stems from the expedition when him and a few of Ashley’s other men traveled north into the forks of the Grand River in South Dakota. It was August of 1832 when Glass startled a grizzly bear with two of her cubs. Startling the bear resulted in the thrashing that Glass received. His wounds were deemed so extensive that Major Ashley requested that two men stay with Glass until he died of his wounds. The men that stepped forward were Bridger who at the time was 19 and the youngest member of the expedition. The other man was John Fitzgerald, also very young at the age of 23. The men claimed that Arrikara Indians had attacked them. During the attack they grabbed Glass’ knife, rifle, and other essential equipment. When they reported back to Ashley they falsely reported that Glass had passed away from his wounds. What they didn’t know was that Glass had regained consciousness to find that all of his peers and equipment was gone accept for the pelt of the bear that had attacked him. The 200-mile journey was daunting, but with revenge and survival to drive him, Glass would accomplish his mission at all cost. Although this story of survival is interesting, our focus will be on young Jim Bridger and why Glass feels so driven to seek his revenge on this young man. The myth of Jim Bridger leaving Glass to die often becomes clouded in the rest of tale of the expedition. Many would read through not expecting that for Jim Bridger leaving Hugh Glass weighed heavily on his emotions. It is often stated that Fitzgerald and him “stole” Glass’ possessions and here is were I want to break this myth open and prove that young Bridger was innocent.

After they had left Glass and met up with Ashley at the Yellowstone they tried to maintain residence at the fort but Indian heat was far to great to reside there safely. The Indians were stealing animals and had killed three members of the trapping group. The decision was made to turn up river towards the Big Horn River there they would set fort for the fall hunt. Bridger went west over the continental divide. Beaver pelt was the preferred medium for Bridger and his companions. The silky pelt could sell for upwards of 8 dollars a pelt. At this price Bridger wouldn’t give up an opportunity to check anything that would lead him to a pelt. Bridger’s way of trapping a beaver was to drown the beaver as it was trapped and trying to escape back into its damn at the end of his line. The ways of trapping was quick far faster at killing the animal than Glass’ death.

The January of the next year Jim returned to the fort at the Big Horn he continued to have thoughts of Glass recalling how great he was at cutting meat when they would divide the loads from the hunters. The thoughts of leaving Glass unburied weighed heavily on Bridger’s conscience. From nightmares to continuous guilt ,the idea of Glass still being alive haunted Bridger in ways that began to affect his everyday life. Bridger began to despise Fitzgerald, the man who had made the decision to leave the mutilated Glass in favor of his own. Bridger formed such a disdain for him that he would go days on end avoiding even looking at him for the sake of what they may have done to poor old Glass. Bridger, on occasion, regretted his decision to volunteer to stay behind and watch the dying man yet sometimes he wished he would have stuck it out until he had died or come to rather than leave the bloody mess of a man that Glass was. Ultimately Glass had become the young Jim’s worst fear whether he were to come back to life or haunt him forever.

Unfortunately for Jim the nightmare of Hugh Glass coming to life was far from a fading thought and much closer to reality. A late night sometime after a hunt in which Jim had come back empty handed, he noticed a figure up on the horizon at the top of the moonlight. He noticed the figure standing very still and recalls that it was very skinny with a grey beard. But it couldn’t be, he thought after all this time surely the man was dead. His ghost had finally caught up to him he thought to himself. The figure moved closer with features on the face eventually showing a fierce looking Glass speckled with rage. The ghastly phantom stretched its hands out before Jim had even began to run. Rather than the wispiness of a ghost hand the one that actually gripped Jim’s shoulder was solid and didn’t give any indication of letting go. The ghost was really he who the poor Jim feared most. Glass had miraculously returned to exact revenge upon the two who had left him for dead. “Speak up, young-un, quick afore I kill you” (Vestal p.96)

Once Jim was free from the barrel pointed in his face, he and Glass accompanied the Major back to his quarters to discuss the matter at hand. Glass told his harrowing tail of survival. Upon seeing the young Bridger practically cower at the sight of Glass. He easily concluded that he had not left Glass to die. Rather he figured it had been Fitzgerald who had made the call to leave him for dead. The rest of the major’s brigade couldn’t hold Bridger’s actions against him seeing that Glass had passed his forgiveness on to the boy. In the time after the mauling, I found that Bridge had deep feelings for what had happened and often thought of the man he had left behind to die with nothing but a bear pelt. Thus I find that Hugh Glass’ own opinion of Jim Bridger was far from informed and quick to act upon revenge against those whom he had felt wronged him. Luckily for Bridger, Glass found within himself the ability to spare the young mountain man’s life. Due to this, Bridger looked over his future companions, which eventually gained him the name Old Gabe.

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