If you like the movies no doubt you have heard of the new Hollywood film The Revenant, starring Leonardo diCaprio and Tom Hardy. The film just won the 2016 Golden Globe Award for best drama and DiCaprio received the best actor award. It has also just yesterday received 12 Oscar nominations.
The film is an account of the travails of Hugh Glass, a mountain man who in 1823 was badly mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. Glass survived and made a grueling 250-mile trek to safety. Glass’ exploits became cemented in legend, inspiring three movies, two books (including Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant, which inspired the film), and numerous songs. While The Revenant is fictionalized, many of the events and characters are real, and showcase the life of mountain men. The Museum of the Mountain Man has an excellent account on the real Hugh Glass; we here present to you how Robert Campbell fits in with The Revenant.
Campbell was only then arriving in the West when Glass was busy being mauled by a bear. Campbell was in the employ of John O’Fallon, a St. Louis-based businessman charged with supplying an army fort at Council Bluffs, Iowa. His first posting was across the Missouri from Council Bluffs, at Bellevue, Nebraska. During the cold winter that followed, Campbell’s struggles paled in comparison to Glass’, yet neither had an easy time. Glass was attempting to survive while badly wounded and alone in the wilderness; Campbell began having lung issues which would plague him for most of his life. Things were so bad for Campbell that, upon his return to St. Louis in spring 1824, he was advised by a doctor to go into the Rockies. The doctor added, “I have before sent two or three young men there in your condition, and they came back restored to health and healthy as bucks.” It is likely that Hugh Glass would disagree with the sentiment that the Rockies could make you healthy and long-lived.
Although there is no evidence that Glass and Campbell ever met, Glass’ epic story would have been told and retold around many a fireside among the fur traders. Campbell also personally knew many of those involved. William Sublette, who became Campbell’s best friend and business partner, was among those hired alongside Glass in 1823. Another famous mountain man, Jedediah Smith, commanded Glass and 39 other men during the battle with the Arikara Indians that opens the film. It was Smith who hired Robert for the fur trade in 1825.
Jim Bridger is the figure who is most central to both Glass and Campbell’s experiences. At 18 years of age, Bridger was in the party when Glass was attacked by the bear. According to some later accounts, Bridger may have been one of the two volunteers who stayed with Glass, but thinking him dead, hastened to catch up with the party. It was a good thing for Campbell that Glass forgave Bridger rather than taking his revenge, as Bridger and Campbell would work closely together for the next decade and maintain a relationships for the rest of their lives.
Both men were lieutenants in the Smith, Jackson, & Sublette Company beginning in 1826, leading bands of trappers into the mountains for the winter before heading to the rendezvous. While Campbell had a good head for numbers and management, Bridger was unsurpassed in his knowledge of mountain life, making their partnership a useful one. Their relationship continued even in later life, with both men attending the 1850 meeting that resulted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Glass and Campbell followed very different trajectories in their time in the West. Although Glass clearly had the stamina and skill to survive in the mountains, he never rose very high within the fur company’s hierarchy. Glass seems to have broken from the companies and worked as a free trader. He played a minor role in bringing the American Fur Company, a rival company to Campbell and Sublette, to the 1830 Rendezvous. Glass later began working out of Fort Union and later Fort Cass, both outposts of the American Fur Company.
In contrast, Campbell was made a lieutenant in just his second year in the west. In 1830, Sublette first asked Campbell to join as a partner, but he did not accept until 1831. Campbell achieved his own fame for his role in the 1832 Battle of Pierre’s Hole, which led to a role in Washington Irving’s book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Two years later, Campbell and Sublette embarked on a risky strategy by challenging the American Fur Company directly by building Fort William just a few miles from Fort Union, Glass’ old trading point.
The future was bright for Campbell, but not for Hugh Glass. Glass was killed in an encounter with some Arikara Indians in 1833, a somewhat ignominious end (if predictable) for a man who so often defied death. Still, his legend lives on, and if you find yourself in a movie theater, be sure to check out the epic of Hugh Glass, then head online to the Museum of the Mountain Man or downtown St. Louis to the Campbell House for the real deal!
In honor of this movie event come to Campbell House before April 1 to see Robert Cambpell’s magnificent buckskin jacket on display in his bedroom. Contact us for an appointment.
Interested in learning more? Hear fur trade historian Dr. Jay Buckley discuss the fur trade, Hugh Glass and the role of Campbell House in this fascinating story on NPR’s St. Louis on the Air with Don Marsh.