01: The Revenant

Within a month of release, The Revenant almost doubled the $135 million it cost to make on its way to an amazing three wins at the 2016 Academy Awards. After 36 feature films and four nominations that came up without a win, actor Leonardo DiCaprio finally earned his first Oscar with his 37th film.

So what is the true story behind The Revenant? Let’s find out.

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Episode Transcript

In 2009, President Obama chose Michael Punke to serve as the Deputy United States Trade Representative, U.S. Ambassador, and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Punke was confirmed for the position in 2011 by the U.S. Senate.

As a high-ranking federal employee, Punke isn’t allowed to publicize his side projects. However, that didn’t stop Hollywood from turning his first novel, which was published in 2002, into an award-winning masterpiece.

Within a month of release, The Revenant almost doubled the $135 million it cost to make on its way to an amazing three wins at the 2016 Academy Awards. After 36 feature films and four nominations that came up without a win, actor Leonardo DiCaprio finally earned his first Oscar with his 37th film.

While the movie was primarily based on Punke’s novel, the story is based on truth.

The true story behind The Revenant

Both Punke’s novel and Hollywood’s blockbuster movie The Revenant are based on the story of a man named Hugh Glass.

Born in the early 1780s near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hugh had a knack for telling stories that captivated his audiences. Because of this, a lot of historians have had a hard time determining what’s true and what’s fiction. After all, Hugh was the only one who witnessed most of the stories he told.

While the oral history of Hugh’ tales can’t always be taken at face value, most of the ones we know today have been verified by historians who use documents written by others who have mentioned Hugh in their own writings.

Much of the early life of Hugh Glass isn’t really known. In fact, we don’t know much until his early 40s, when he shows up in the memoirs of a trapper from New Mexico named George C. Yount.

Yount recalled meeting and befriending Hugh. Right away, Yount is captivated by Hugh’s stories. We can tell this because Yount spent the time to recount some of Hugh’s stories in his own memoirs.

According to Yount, Hugh’ first story came from ten years before the two met.

So just to put this in perspective — the only documentation we have of this is in Yount’s memoirs, retelling a story that Hugh had told him that happened ten years prior. So we’re relying on someone writing down what someone else remembers from happening a decade before. As you can imagine, this means taking the story with a grain of salt.

Still, it’s easy to see why Yount was fascinated by his stories. According to Hugh, he was a sailor around 1817 when the famous French pirate Jean Lafitte seized his ship. As was often the case, he was given a simple choice: Join Jean Lafitte and his band of pirates … or die.

Hugh, who wasn’t fond of dying, decided not to this time around and agreed to join Lafitte’s pirates. For the next year, Hugh lived in what would become Texas at a small pirate colony on Galveston Island.

He recounted to Yount the stories of cruel murders and horrible deeds done on a daily basis. Yount believed Hugh to be a God-fearing man and obviously believed Hugh to be truthful when he experienced regret for the savage acts he’d committed as a pirate.

Seeking a chance to escape the crew, Hugh enlisted the help of a fellow crew-mate who was also fed up with the life of piracy. They took a chance and jumped ship one evening when good fortunes left the two of them alone on the ship while the rest of the crew was ashore.

Together, the pair swam for two miles until they hit the shore. For a while, they lived near the shore and survived by eating various sea creatures — even, according to Hugh, poisonous ones.

When they thought they weren’t going to be followed by Lafitte, they made their way inland to avoid getting captured by the Karankawas tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area.

Without a map of the area, the two wandered for a long time. History doesn’t have any account of exactly how long, but Hugh estimated a trip of about 1,000 miles deep into Native American territory in what is now the Central United States.

Their good fortune would run out when the two were found by the Pawnee, another tribe of Native Americans.

Hugh had to watch while his friend was burned alive at the stake while being pierced with slivers of burning pine trees at the hand of the Pawnee.

As horrifying as this must have been, especially since Hugh had to have assumed he was next, history now tells us that this sort of ritual actually was fairly common at the time for the Pawnee. They believed such human sacrifice would help ensure a bountiful crop.

When they came for him next, it was the Pawnee Chief who’s privilege it was to pierce him first. Rather than struggle, Hugh shocked the Chief by reaching into his pocket to pull out a brilliant red powder. It was vermillion and incredibly valuable to the Pawnee. Handing it to the Chief, he bowed and said his final farewell.

After a moment’s pause, the Chief took this as a sign from the gods and decided to not only spare Hugh’ life but to adopt him.

He lived with the Pawnee for the next couple of years, and while he did have a wife, unlike in Hollywood’s version of the story, there’s no proof that Hugh had any children during his time with the Pawnee.

In 1822, the events in Hollywood’s blockbuster started to unfold as Hugh joined the fur trade when he took a job from a newspaper ad placed by General William Ashley, of the Missouri militia, and his business partner — Andrew Henry.

Together they founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in St. Louis, Missouri.

One hundred men joined the company’s inaugural expedition. Some of them would earn fame as mountain men outside of Hugh such as Thomas Fitzpatrick — not to be confused with Tom Hardy’s character in the movie, John Fitzgerald — Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith — the latter of whom would eventually buy Ashley’s fur trading company.

For this expedition, though, it was one that would ensure people for all time would remember Hugh Glass.

Such expeditions were common for fur companies, and many are credited as being responsible for discoveries such as the Green River Valley in western Colorado and Utah Lake, just south of the Great Salt Lake.

The purpose of this expedition, though, was to travel to the source of the Missouri river and work trapping animals for their fur for up to three years.

As the expedition made their way along the Missouri River, they encountered the Arikara tribe – a Native American tribe who had farms in Missouri. The Arikara had earned a reputation at the time of being an unpredictable group. They’d often use their knowledge of the land to bully, rob or even murder traders as they tried to pass.

On May 30th, 1823, Ashley went into an Arikara village to start negotiating with the tribe in the hopes that they could work peacefully. But he also needed horses, as they had lost many of theirs.

Unfortunately, the Arikara weren’t in a good mood. Another trading company had apparently passed by recently and had a skirmish with the tribe, leaving many of their warriors dead. Ashley tried to convince them he and his men had nothing to do with that battle. In an attempt to appease them, he offered them gifts.

Most historians think that while Ashley offered the gifts as a way of appeasing them, in turn, the Arikara saw this as Ashley acknowledging responsibility and offering the gifts as payment for their lost warriors. It was miscommunication.

This could prove to be a vital rational for what would soon happen.

When the trade discussions turned to the horses the expedition needed, the smooth-talking Ashley managed to make a pretty good deal — 25 muskets and ammunition in exchange for 19 horses.

Ashley left the village in good spirits, as he had gotten what he had hoped. Or so he thought.

Rather than continuing on, and confident that he had nothing to fear from the Arikara, Ashley and his men decided to stay put to wait out a storm.

A couple days later, on June 1st, all hell broke loose.

The violence started early when some Arikara warriors tried to kill Ashley while he was sleeping on his boat. He managed to scare them off, but his attention quickly shifted when screams came from the beach.

On shore, it turns out, the Arikara had caught two of Ashley’s men trying to sneak into the tribe’s village and meet some of the women there. Only one of the men, Edward Rose, managed to make it back to tell the tale.

First blood had been shed.

It was still dark when a single Arikara called to Ashley’s men who were camped on the beach. Cautiously, the lone Arikara warrior approached the men. He offered to return the body of the man who died in the village — a man named Aaron Stephens. In return, he wanted a single horse.

After some discussion, Ashley agreed to this deal. The Arikara man left and returned some time later without the body, explaining it was too badly mangled. There wasn’t enough left to return.

The Arikara warrior left, and an upset Ashley stood with his men and a horse on the beach.

As the sun rose, Ashley and his men were still pondering their next move when the first musket balls hit. Chaos ensued as the Arikara warriors mercilessly slaughtered the men out in open from their hiding places just off the beach.

It was over almost as quickly as it began, the entire firefight lasting only fifteen minutes.

Shocked by the ambush, Ashley and his men retreated along the river. When they managed to gather themselves, they had lost 14 men. Six more are presumed dead on the Arikara’s side and on top of that, 11 of Ashley’s men were wounded — a fate almost as bad as death in the middle of a now hostile territory without any medical aid nearby.

After the massacre on the beach, Ashley didn’t feel safe. So he planned to retaliate — but not all of his men agreed. A lot of them left, taking one of the two keelboats they had back downriver to St. Louis along with the wounded.

Letters were dispatched to everyone they could think of — key among these being to Colonel Henry Leavenworth at Fort Atkinson and the newspapers in St. Louis.

One of these letters was written by Hugh Glass himself and offers us some insight into what was going through their heads.

Dr Sir:
My painfull duty it is to tell you of the deth of yr son wh befell at the hands of the indians 2d June in the early morning. He lived little while after he was shot and asked me to inform you of his sad fate. We brought him to the ship when he soon died. Mr. Smith young man of our company made powerful prayr wh moved us all greatly and am persuaded John died in peace. His body we buried with others near this camp and marked the grave with log. His things we will send to you. The savages are greatly treacherous. We traded with them as friends but after great storm of rain and thunder they came at us before light and many were hurt. I myself was shot in the leg. Master Ashley is bound to stay in these parts till the traitors are rightly punished.
Yr Obt Svt
Hugh Glass

Note: Misspellings in the above quote are on purpose.

And so, it would seem, Ashley wanted revenge. But he couldn’t do it on his own. So he found a spot some distance away from the Arikara village and made camp while they waited for help.

They only had to wait for a couple months, when Colonel Leavenworth showed up with a force of about 900 — a mixture of volunteers, militia, and Lakota — another Native American tribe.

Hugh Glass was still healing from his injuries so he wasn’t there when, on August 8th, Leavenworth and his force laid siege to the Arikara village. After about a day and a half of probing attacks, Leavenworth caused a controversy among his men when he called for a cease-fire and negotiated peace with the Arikara leadership.

You see, the men had wanted to make an example of the Arikara’s — no one can kill Americans without punishment. The Lakota tribe in the group wasn’t happy because they wanted the glory of battle.

As Leavenworth went back to Fort Atkinson, he turned to see smoke rising from beyond the trees behind them. Some of his men had gone against Leavenworth’s orders and set fire to the village.

After the conflict with the Arikara, Ashley thought of cutting their losses. The conflict had proved expensive — he and his partner, Andrew Henry, were still paying their men, and they hadn’t been trapping furs.

The group ended up splitting into two, abandoning the Missouri river and determined to head toward the Rocky Mountains. Ashley himself returned to St. Louis to handle their creditors. Jedidiah Smith and Henry each took about half of the remaining men.

Hugh Glass was in Henry’s group along with about 30 other men. For the next couple of months, Henry, Hugh, and their group headed west. Some of these men ended up dropping out of the exhibition as they passed various villages, meaning this number dropped to about 15 by the time they reached the Grand River Valley in Colorado.

In August of 1823, an event happened that’d change his life forever and eventually win Leo DiCaprio his first Oscar.

Hugh was the hunter, so he would often go far ahead of the rest of the group so he could sneak up on animals that he’d kill for food. It was while hunting that Hugh happened upon a couple animals he didn’t expect.

As he made his way through a shallow river to avoid letting animals smell his scent, he came across two bear cubs and their mother.

She attacked and, after watching Leo getting tossed around in Hollywood’s version, I think we can all agree the ensuing screams and noises had to have carried around the wilderness for quite a distance.

Hearing his screams, the rest of the group hurried to the scene where they surrounded and managed to kill the bear.

Remember this same group had already encountered plenty of wounded men at the hand of the Arikara massacre a few months before. Without the hope of a keelboat to send down the river, Hugh’s situation seemed dire. Henry and most of the group agreed that Hugh would be dead by morning.

But he wasn’t.

With unfriendly Native Americans around, and the men certainly not wanting another Arikara incident, they couldn’t stay in one place for too long. Instead of leaving Hugh to die alone, the men built a litter and carried Hugh around with them for the next two days.

But this really slowed them down and Henry was afraid they’d get blindsided by another attack. After some debate, Henry offered an extra $80 to the first two men who’d be willing to stay with Hugh until he passed. That’s about $2,000 in today’s money. Since everyone expected Hugh to be dead any day, it’s not surprising that they found those volunteers.

Historians have long debated who the two volunteers were, but as best as documents show it appears Hollywood did get it right — John Fitzgerald and James Bridger are most likely the two men who stayed with Hugh. In The Revenant, Fitzgerald is played by Tom Hardy and Bridger is played by Will Poulter.

One day passed.

Two days.

Three days. Hugh refused to die. Fitzgerald was getting antsy, not wanting to get ambushed by Native Americans again.

On the fifth day, Fitzgerald convinced Bridger, who was much younger than him, that they’d done their duty. They’d earned the $80 and stayed with Hugh for a lot longer than anyone else would have.

They stripped Hugh’s body of his gun, knife, tomahawk and fire-making kit. After all, a dead man won’t need them. Setting his body next to a spring the two left him there and made for a nearby fort.

In Hollywood’s version, it was witnessing — but not being able to do anything about — the murder of his son that caused Leo’s Hugh Glass the will to come back from the land of the dead.

In truth, there’s no proof Hugh had a son and without anyone else around to corroborate the story, most of what happens after this point is solely reliant on Hugh’s own recounting.

He knew he was alone. He knew he was left to die.

That was enough to afford him the determination to start crawling. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he was driven to survive — and get revenge.

Minutes must have seemed like hours and hours must’ve seemed like days. As he crawled, he ate insects, snakes or whatever else he could find to keep him alive.

We all saw the big screen rendition of Leo eating a bison liver in the movie. And, as best as we can tell, this actually happened. About a week into his tediously slow trek across the wilderness, Hugh witnessed some wolves killing a calf. He waited patiently until the wolves had eaten their fill and left until he took the carcass for his own. He stayed there until he had eaten the rest of the buffalo — about half of it was left after the wolves were done — and used that time and food to help regain strength.

After this much-needed energy and time to re-cooperate, he was able to move much faster.

Soon after, he reached the Missouri river, where he ran into some Lakota men. If you remember, the Lakota took part in the siege against the Arikara. They helped Hugh by giving him a boat, which he used to float down the river.

In all, he had traveled from death’s door in early September over 250 miles and against unbelievable odds. In the middle of October 1823, Hugh Glass shocked everyone when he limped into Fort Kiowa to the southeast of where he was attacked.

Hugh stayed at Fort Kiowa for only two days, buying a rifle, ammunition and some other much-needed supplies on credit — which he had earned thanks to his association with Ashley’s expedition.

He tagged along with a group that was heading to attack the Arikara, who had continued to disrupt and cause tensions with local traders. While Hugh didn’t care much for retaliation against the Arikara, he saw this as an opportunity to get to the nearby Fort Henry — where he expected Fitzgerald and Bridger to be.

Hugh had another stroke of good fortune. They were in a boat traveling down the Missouri River and nearing their destination when they came on a large bend. Strong winds made travel slow and tedious. Instead of sticking with the group in the boat, Hugh asked to go ashore, deciding he would take it on foot from here.

Less than a day later, a band of Arikara warriors slaughtered everyone on the boat.

Later the same day, some Arikara women spotted Hugh as they were gathering firewood. They ran back to the village, where a group of warriors was dispatched to kill Hugh.

Fortunately for Hugh, a pair from the friendly Mandan tribe noticed the Arikara women raising the alarm and got to Hugh first. They escorted him to the safety of the nearby Tilton trading post.

Within the span of a day, Hugh’s life had been saved twice. It was only when he arrived at the trading post that Hugh learned of the slaughter at the river that he had barely escaped.

As if he was taunting fate, Hugh waited around at the Tilton trading post for a couple months until the weather got really bad. Toward the end of November, he left Tilton and made the 38-day walk across a frozen wilderness to Fort Henry.

When he got there, it was empty.

From here, he went to the new Fort Henry. No one really knows how he knew where the new fort was located. By historians’ best guesses, they figured maybe someone left a note at the fort — a forwarding address. This was almost due south by a couple hundred miles.

However it happened, we know that on December 31st, 1823, Hugh Glass showed up at the new Fort Henry. Everyone was shocked — Hugh was supposed to have been dead, and everyone at the fort knew it.

After answering the barrage of questions, Hugh had one of his own: Where are Fitzgerald and Bridger?

Fitzgerald wasn’t at the fort anymore, but Bridger was, and one can only guess what it was like when Hugh and Bridger finally met. After what must’ve been an intense discussion, Bridger convinced Hugh that it was all Fitzgerald’s idea.

When he went into Fort Henry, I’m sure the former pirate Hugh had an idea of what sort of revenge he wanted to exact on Bridger. Coming out of it, he ended up forgiving the younger of the two men who had abandoned him and left him for dead just a few months before.

Hugh’s journey wasn’t over yet. Besides, Fitzgerald still had his gun.

One thing he did get from Bridger, though, was information. Fitzgerald was headed to Fort Atkinson, about a thousand miles to the east in what’s now Nebraska.

With winter in full swing, such a long trip wouldn’t be easy to do — even for someone with Hugh’s knack for avoiding death. Not tempting fate any more than necessary, he hung out at Fort Henry until the end of February when he joined a team headed to a military outpost at the Council Bluffs of the Missouri River.

Not long into this trip, the group was traveling down the river when they saw some Native Americans camped on the shore. They called out in the Pawnee language, inviting them to come ashore. Since Hugh had lived with the Pawnee, the group agreed to come ashore. They left one man in the boat with all of the guns and followed the Pawnee group into their village.

Hugh, who knew the Pawnee language, overheard one of the Native Americans speaking a different language —— it was Arikara.

They had been tricked.

Hugh warned his fellow travelers and as soon as they found an opportunity everyone ran for their lives. The Arikara pursued them and killed all but three, Hugh being one of the survivors. Unfortunately, though, in the chaos that ensued Hugh was separated from the other two so as far as they were concerned there were only two survivors.

They unknowingly left Hugh behind. And yet again, Hugh found himself alone in a hostile wilderness surrounded by enemies, without a gun and hundreds of miles away from help.

This time, though, Hugh still had his knife and fire-making tools. He took this as a good sign and continued on, abandoning his old path and heading to the closest fort he knew of — Fort Kiowa in modern South Dakota, and the same place the same fort he staggered into the last year after being left alone.

Being in much better health than the last time he was on his own, he made much better time. Within a couple months, he made it to Fort Kiowa where he learned John Fitzgerald had joined the army and was garrisoned at Fort Atkinson.

And so it was, about ten months after being left for dead in the middle of a hot June that Hugh Glass arrived at Fort Atkinson. He was there for one reason, and he made it clear.

The U.S. Army captain got in the way of Hugh’s revenge. Since Fitzgerald had joined the Army, he was the property of the government, and the captain wouldn’t let Hugh see him, insisting that he first tell him why he was so anxious to take out one of his soldiers.

Hugh’s telling of his story must’ve been quite something to behold, and when he was done laying it all out, the captain didn’t budge. He must’ve believed him, though, because he did give Hugh his gun back. But he told Hugh he had to forget any ideas he had about revenge against Fitzgerald for as long as he was in the Army.

And so his revenge would have to wait.

And wait.

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. All the while, Hugh waited for his revenge.

While he waited, Hugh did what he did best as a hunter and trapper.

Years later, along with a man by the name of Hilain Menard and Edward Rose – the man who had escaped the Arikara village earlier in our story – went on a trapping expedition near Fort Cass just a few short miles north of Fort Henry when they were ambushed by a party of Arikara warriors.

In the winter of 1833, Hugh Glass died a violent death alongside his two fellow trappers at the hand of the Native Americans who had so often failed to bring him down over the years.

Shortly after killing Hugh, Rose, and Menard, the Arikara party stumbled upon another camp of trappers. They pretended to be another tribe and were invited to warm themselves by the campfire. While doing so, the trappers noticed Hugh’s rifle and some of the other Arikara’s carrying possessions they knew to be owned by Rose and Menard.

The trappers turned on the Arikara and captured them. Their leader, a man by the name of Johnson Gardner, was a mind of his own for revenge. Seeing the possessions of his friends and knowing what this meant, Gardner ordered the Arikara’s scalped and then burned alive.

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