We Dakotans know the story of Hugh Glass. He’s part of our state legends and folklore, much like Wild Bill Hickok or Casey Tibbs. It’s usually fourth grade, when we turn our history lessons to salt clay maps of the state, memorizing county names and learning about the journeys of Lewis and Clark. If we were lucky, we had to read Fredrick Manfred’s book, “Lord Grizzly,” in high school and imagined the labored journey of a man who was mauled by a bear.
The popularity of the new movie “The Revenant,” is making many South Dakotans take a look back at those old history lessons. Of course Hollywood changes things, like adding trees and mountains to northwest South Dakota, but the core of the story remains the same. Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and trader, was mauled by a bear near what is now Lemmon, S.D., in the early 1800s and crawled 200 miles to safety.
It doesn’t take long before Dakotans realize there really aren’t bears in South Dakota. How did Hugh Glass get mauled by one in 1823? Is this just a tall tale we Dakotans carry in our prairie souls like a Laura Ingalls Wilder’s corn husk doll?
“Grizzly bears have not been documented in South Dakota for a long time,” John Kanta, Game, Fish and Parks regional wildlife manager, said. “The last grizzly that I am aware of was reported to be killed in 1894 in the Black Hills.”
There were grizzly bears here in the early 19th century, though. Lewis and Clark, on their expedition to map the Louisiana Purchase between 1804 and 1806 noted them in the area, and an 1875 Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge escorted a scientific expedition of geologist Walter P. Jenney into the Black Hills of the Dakotas and north west to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Dodge recorded seeing “bears – grizzly, brown and black, numerous” in his daily journal.
One of the best-known photos of General George Armstrong Custer shows him in 1874 with a massive grizzly bear displayed like a prize over a rock. The bear was apparently shot near present-day Nemo, S.D.
Jedidiah Smith, a mountain man and contemporary of Hugh Glass, was also mauled by a grizzly bear. The Jedidiah Smith Society has records reporting the bear attacked Smith, ripped open his side, broke several ribs and bit him in the head, pulling off his scalp and an ear. He ordered his men to clean and stitch his wounds and he went on to become another mountain man legend of the west.
Kanta said, “Grizzlies were extirpated in the late 1800s due primarily to unregulated hunting. It was also due to market hunting on wildlife like deer, elk and buffalo, prey items that grizzly bears need to survive. As the prey base was killed off, there was not enough for grizzly bears to survive.”
So what about wolves? In The Revenant and Lord Grizzly, the stories include Glass eating a bison calf killed by a pack of wolves. He waited and scared them off before all the meat was gone.
“They would have been grey wolves,” Kanta said. “I have heard reference of ‘buffalo wolves’ that occurred in South Dakota on the prairies. To my knowledge, these would have been grey wolves as well.”
Grey wolves are not always associated with a specific habitat, but often went where prey was abundant. Books about Glass’ attack mention packs of wolves, which would have been accurate – most packs number seven or less and are governed by an alpha male and alpha female. A unified pack is important when they pursue prey, and they often go after newborn, wounded, old or crippled animals.
Colonel Dodge’s journals mention wolves in what is now northwest South Dakota, as do Lewis and Clark. South Dakota became a state in 1889, and the 1890 legislature established a $3 bounty on wolves, essentially ending their life in the state. Most wolves today live in Canada, Alaska and a few scattered places in the lower 48 states.
“Currently we have not documented any packs of wolves or breeding pairs in South Dakota,” Kanta said, “just the occasional wolf that travels through. Wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act in South Dakota,” Kanta said, “and it is illegal for anyone to cause them harm.”
Hugh Glass’ story wouldn’t be complete without the bison herds coming through in giant waves on the prairie. He would have been lucky enough to experience the vast herds in 1823 that some said numbered to 30 million. The bison were removed down to a few thousand specimens by the late 1880s. Today, only small herds remain in the United States, controlled by fences and breeding programs.
Luckily, many of the other animals in Glass’ story remain in healthy populations on the Great Plains. Residents and visitors can still see jackrabbits, coyotes, beaver, deer, pronghorn, turkeys, grouse, waterfowl and many other smaller species like mice and other rodents Glass reportedly ate on his 200 mile journey to safety.
If You Go
Visitors to nearby Lemmon, S.D., population 1200, find nothing but quiet and simplicity today. People can stand near the prairie site where Glass was attacked by the bear, but the real site is under water after the Bureau of Reclamation completed a dam in 1954. The reservoir has 5,000 acres of surface water today and provides excellent fishing and recreation opportunities.
The Shadehill Recreation Area is managed by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Visitors can find a campground, camping cabins, boat ramp, lodge and picnic shelter built to enjoy the water opportunities.
There is a small monument to Hugh Glass in the campground, but a big historic marker is on south side of the lake along the road to Hugh Glass Lakeside Use area, a primitive campground with 12 sites. The primitive area is hosting a Hugh Glass Rendezvous August 25-28, 2016, with people authentically recreating the time period of Glass.
Sculptor John Lopez displays his work in Lemmon. His latest sculpture, a hybrid metal art piece, shows the encounter between Glass and the bear. It is housed at the Grand River Museum in Lemmon. They are open May 1 to September 30 of each year.
Tiffany Sanderson, Pierre, grew up in Lemmon, the town that claims the horrible bear attack. Lemmon, she said, is nothing short of idyllic – and the horrors of the past have long left the prairie air there.
“The area where the Hugh Glass memorial stands is completely dissonant to events that took place there almost 200 years ago,” she said. “My childhood memories of the area include church picnics in the summer, skipping rocks on Shadehill, breezes combing a sea of grass over the bluffs and through draws, and the kind of fluffy, white clouds over the lake that make turtles and other animals appear to float through air. It’s a place of beauty and full of prairie spirit.”
Books on Hugh Glass
“Lord Grizzly” by Fredrick Manfred. Fiction.
“The Revenant” by Michael Punke. Fiction.
“Hugh Glass” by Bruce Bradley. Non-fiction.
Reprinted with Permission from: The Wildlife of the Hugh Glass Story: Are There Grizzly Bears in South Dakota? Conservation Digest, a publication of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Article originally printed in the January/February 2016 issue by Thea Miller Ryan, an employee of SD Game, Fish and Parks. Read more issues or subscribe.