After the movie Revenant, many people have a renewed interest in the history of the mountain men who helped tame the West.
Hugh Glass was the star of the Revenant, becoming a legend in his own time after he survived a bear attack that should have killed him. In fact his companions left him for dead, certain he was a goner. The survival of Glass was all but a miracle given his circumstances, in the middle of a wilderness alone, surrounded by hostile Native Americans, and grievously wounded without benefit of any modern medicine to help.
What many people may not realize about the story is that Glass' iconic adventure was part of different, iconic tale, that of William Ashley, the owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur company.
Ashley came out west during the same timeframe as the Glass bear attack to supply the men, which included Glass, who he’d hired to trap for him. His first rendezvous was held at Henry’s Fork, west of the Green River near the Utah border.
Eventually, Ashley journeyed all the way up the river to Fort Union and nearby Fort Henry. The tale of Ashley's triumph was retold by Rod Lassey at Fort Union Saturday and Sunday as part of the 39th Annual Rendezvous.
When the Ashley expedition arrived, the Native American tribes proved to be in a surly mood, Lassey said. For 100 years the French had traded with the Arikara and then with the Assiniboine, but now they were seeing the keel boats go by without stopping.
The Assiniboine tribe’s power, in particular, had been much diminished of late, with diseases cutting what had been around a dozen settlements down to two. Seeing keel boats go by without trading was like salt in an open wound.
Meanwhile, some members of the Missouri Trading Company killed some Native American members of one tribe, which did nothing to quell tensions between the groups. After a couple of Missouri Trading Company members went into a village looking for women, things come to a head. One of the men was beaten and killed, and after that the Arikara swarmed the Missouri Trading Company’s party on a sandbar, attacking.
Hugh Glass' by now famous encounter with the bear was actually happening against the backdrop of a much wider conflict.
Missouri Trading Company keelboats cut anchor and headed downriver in a hurry. Men loaded down with iron even jumped out of boats, nearly drowning in the effort to get away, as the Arikara swarmed the shore, coming after the boats.
Ashley’s party lost 13 people during the conflict, and another 11 were wounded, two of whom ultimately died. These tensions greatly complicated Ashley’s efforts to get all the furs he and his men had collected back home to St. Louis — some 9,000 beaver pelts in all, according to historical records.
Ultimately, Ashley and his men did make it back with most if not all of the pelts, making Ashley an overnight millionaire, and securing him a place in history.
The conflicts with the Arikara proved a turning point in Mountain Man history, Lassey said. They forced Ashley to of something new to survive. Instead of forts along the river, he opened up a new trail, and the Rendezvous was born from that.
“It made him fabulously wealthy,” Lassey added. “He was even Lt. Gov. of Missouri for awhile.”