Skin for skin: Taking a closer look at Hugh Glass and the grim and grizzly nature of the American Frontier

21 January 2016

Earlier this week a few intrepid members of the team currently creating the forthcoming Frontier Life collection made an expedition of their own to watch new film The Revenant. Exploring the thrilling tale of fur-trader Hugh Glass, The Revenant touches upon many themes covered in the Frontier Life collection, such as relations with indigenous peoples, trade and commerce, and of course expeditions and exploration.

Brass Trade Token/ Hudson’s Bay Company, 1838, © The Manitoba Museum
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

A personal highlight of the film, and a scene celebrated by film critics worldwide, has to be the infamous bear attack suffered by the protagonist Hugh Glass whilst embarking upon General William Henry Ashely’s fur-trading expedition of 1823. Here the action is as grim and grizzly as the bear Glass battles after he unwittingly disturbs a mother and cubs whilst hunting for provisions near the forks of the Grand River, South Dakota. Although gravely wounded and abandoned for dead by his fellow fur-trappers, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) thankfully regains consciousness along with his dishevelled good looks, rallying with a resolution to survive and seek revenge for the murder of his son.

Animal attacks of this nature, particularly those of bears, upon fur traders, explorers, and American Indians alike were a common occurrence and therefore unsurprisingly feature frequently in the vast and varied material collated for the Frontier Life collection. Having been fortunate enough to work on the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark material for this project, I have stumbled across many detailed and comparative accounts of both bear attacks and trapping. In his Voorhis Journal Vol 1 for instance, Clark’s records of attacks made on expedition members Willard and Fields, and his description of one killed by himself and George Drewer as “very large and a terrible looking animal, which we found very hard to kill”, repeatedly reinforce the constant presence and threat that these wild animals posed.

Volume 1. Voorhis Journal No. 1, April 7-July 3/ Clark Family Collection © Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Clark’s journals also highlight the profitable nature of bear trapping in the period. Excitedly recording discoveries of “fresh bear tracks”, and describing his pursuit and killing of “a Brown or Grizzly bear” in his entry of May 5th 1805, Clark reveals an eagerness to capitalise on the increasing value of bear fat and pelts in the early 1800’s. Whilst otter, fox and marten furs reached the highest prices on the European market in this period, bear pelts became increasingly valuable when trading and negotiating with Indian nations, as did other grizzly artefacts. The Grizzly bear neckpiece belonging to Reverend John West, and captured in the Frontier Life collection, highlights the symbolic and rare appeal of such items in much the same way as within The Revenant a similar bear-claw necklace is traded to secure sustenance for Glass.

Reverend John West’s Grizzly bear neckpiece, 1838, © The Manitoba Museum
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Clearly then, the Hudson’s Bay Company motto: ‘pro pelle cutem’, commonly translated to ‘Skin for skin’, seems utterly apt, as both Glass and Clark’s narratives reinforce that risking both life and limb was all part of a days’ work on the American Frontier.

The Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters resource will be published in autumn 2016.

For more information about these resources, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Rebecca Baxter

Rebecca Baxter

Since joining Adam Matthew's editorial team in June 2015 I have had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting projects, including ‘Colonial America' and 'Frontier Life: Borderland Settlement & Colonial Encounters'. My own personal and academic interests lie in eighteenth century fiction and travel writing.

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