Artist John Lopez is creating a monument to Hugh Glass, the legendary adventurer best known for surviving a mauling by a grizzly bear.
The Lemmon-based sculptor anticipates a renewed interest in the frontiersman when a film biopic based on his life is released later this year. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, brings the legend of his fight with the bear, struggle to survive, and quest to avenge the men who abandoned him for dead, to the silver screen.
Despite the shadow the Glass legend casts on the region surrounding the forks of the Grand River, Lopez noticed a surprising lack of artistic depictions of the epochal scene. “You come to Lemmon and Shadehill and there’s no imagery of the grizzly bear or Hugh Glass, there’s just that monument [a historic marker placed by the Forest Service], so we definitely need to flesh out some kind of visual. It’s a cool part of our history.”
The monument will be unveiled at the Hugh Glass Memorial Site in the Shadehill Recreation Area (a small state park area surrounded by the Grand River National Grassland), during the first annual Hugh Glass “Rendezvous” this August 27-30. Rendezvous are gatherings of Americana enthusiasts that celebrate with period dress and firearms, and historic reenactments. After the unveiling the sculpture will be displayed at the Grand River Museum in Lemmon as part of a Glass exhibit.
Lopez has employed a new visual aesthetic for the monument. Much of his other work is chunkier, with a divergent mash-up of found objects and sculpted pieces. For this monument, the face of Hugh Glass will be cast in bronze using lost-wax casting, but the energy of the piece is in the long flowing plasma-cut strips of sheet metal that form the grizzly, insinuating movement and echoing the visceral fear and chaos in that moment.
What we know about Glass is steeped in the mythos of the American West. It’s probably impossible to know if he truly ate the half-rotten flesh of the same bear who nearly killed him, or the carcass of a buffalo calf he scavenged from wolves, to make it through the first few days after he was abandoned to the elements.
We know that he already had a reputation in the West as an adventurer — a tall, wiry man who wore buffalo skins and cut his hair with a knife — when he signe up for the “Ashley’s Hundred” fur trading mission, led by General William Ashley of the Missouri militia.
Frederick Manfred described his frontier ambition in the 1954 biography, Lord Grizzly. "The new, the old new, just around the turn ahead, was the only remedy for hot blood. Ahead was always either gold or the grave. The gamble of it freshened the blood at the same time that it cleared the eye. What could beat galloping up alone over the brow of a new bluff for that first look of beyond?”
We know that over a brow of the beyond, near the forks of the Grand River, Glass surprised a mother grizzly with her cubs, a look that once taken in was too late to turn from. How exactly he survived is the stuff of lore, but he did survive, though mutilated and broken. General Ashley left Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald to give Glass a proper burial when he succumbed to the inevitable. The pair dug him a grave, then abandoned him, possibly afraid of being caught on their own in hostile territory.
After the bear fight, his struggle to survive his abandonment is what entrenches the Glass legend in the the frontier narrative. Though his memorialization is in some ways an American update on the sacred iconography that has kept the memory of martyrs like Saint Sebastian alive for millennia, Glass parts ways from the ancients. His ordeal is more the consequence of wanderlust than unwavering faith or innocence. Though he would learn virtue later, what he's been enshrined in the American memory for is brute frontier badassery.
His road to Fort Kiowa confirms in an excruciating tableau of hardship and pain what he's made of. Desperately, he employs maggots to eat the dead flesh from his mangled back. Recalling the biblical allegory of Job, without emulating his patience, Glass fights buzzards, wolves and coyotes, eats rattlesnakes, fashions a splint out of bear skin for his broken leg, and crawls the more than 200 miles.
When he finally arrives, “Three months of plain hell,” is how Manfred’s Glass describes his torment. From there, the legend has him embark on a whiskey and hate-filled quest to avenge Fitzpatrick and Bridger. But by the time he finds their trail, the grizzled old mountain man has learned forgiveness, adding a moral component to his fabled resilience.
These scenes have lived in literature, and an obscure western corner of the American conscience, for nearly two centuries. With a new monument, by one of South Dakota's most innovative artists, to communicate the raw terror in his defining moment, and his stuborn will to survive, the legend of Hugh Glass should be secure for some time, in the Grand River forks foothills and beyond.