Work of Art: "Coleman on "The Revenant"

"Labor Haunts The Revenant"

by Jon Coleman
Professor of History
Author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation (Hill & Wang, 2012)
Work of Art entry for February 2016 

Hollywood stardom has eluded Daniel Potts. No one has turned his western labors into an iconic legend with overtones of existential dread and masculine trauma. No one has featured him in a bestselling novel or an epic poem. Screenwriters have left him alone, and actors looking for subjects to turn into gut-wrenching performances have paid him no mind. Daniel Potts remains a garden-variety historical figure. He’s a petunia, not an orchid.

Still, for all his obscurity, the fur trapper brushed against fame. He heard a wild story about a man who is currently banging on the door of the celebrity A-list. Hugh Glass will reach the exulted status of one of the most renowned bear-attack victims and abandoned persons in U.S. history if Leonardo DiCaprio hears his name called when the envelope opens for best actor during the Academy Awards.  Daniel Potts never met Glass, though they worked for the same employer, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Glass’s near-death encounter reached Potts through the grapevine, and he wrote about it in a letter home to a childhood friend. The letter is the closest historians can get to the events that inspired The Revenant, and the letter is frustrating for its wandering focus. Potts spends more time describing his own injuries than Glass’s. He barely notes the guy who got mauled, and he never mentions Glass by name.

Potts mailed his letter home to Pennsylvania in July 1824. He reported that since leaving two years earlier he had traveled to Illinois and Missouri, hired on with a fur trapping company, and gone west, five hundred miles beyond the frontiers of the United States. He overwintered in an isolated fort, lost two of his toes to frostbite, and ran away when the rivers thawed because the post had ran out of food and eating only singed dog skins had “discouraged him.” He and eight other deserters got lost and survived by stomaching raw baby birds, frogs, and snakes (they did not know how to light a fire). Wandering on his own made Potts rethink the benefits of belonging to a fur company with more experienced hands. He returned to work, got sick, and was crippled when a fellow employee accidently shot a “wiping stick,” the iron rod hunters used to clean musket bores, through both of his knees.

In the summer of 1823, Potts heard the news that the Arikaras had killed fifteen Americans on their way to reinforce his fort on the Yellowstone River. While he remained at the fort, a group of his mates paddled down the Missouri River to join a retaliatory strike against the Arikaras. On their way back, the hunters from the fort and remaining reinforcements fought the Mandans and the Gros Ventres, and “one man was allso tore nearly all to peases by a White Bear and was left by the way without any gun who afterwards recover’d.”

That man was Hugh Glass. Potts’s sketchy sentence is the best evidence for an ordeal that has inspired dozens of newspaper articles, magazine pieces, memoir shout-outs, long poems, novels, and two major motion pictures. The man torn to pieces by a bear, left by the way, who later recovered: it was a story remarkable enough to pass from the Rocky Mountains to small-town Pennsylvania in a personal letter intended to catch up childhood friends, but in the historical context from which the survival legend emerged, it was by no means outside the realm of everyday experience. Many American fur hunters suffered outrageous physical trials in the West of the 1820s. Potts signaled the normality of the dramatic episode by leaving Glass’s name out of the first telling of his story. This, he implied, could have happened to any of them.

Only a pissed-off mother grizzly bear separated Daniel Potts and Hugh Glass. Both labored for a company that could not properly feed, equip, and protect them. Both suffered extreme workplace accidents. Potts actually left more material for posterity. Glass only wrote one letter that has survived, and the missive said nothing about with the bear attack. If posthumous celebrity were based on literary production, Potts deserved higher billing than Glass. Fame, however, awaited the man with the best story, and getting gnawed on by a wild animal offered a better plot point than eating frogs and baby birds. Still, despite the huge disparity in the star meters, Glass truly belonged in Potts’s class. They were workers in a profession that offered great scenery, plenty of fresh air, and incalculable dangers.  

A revenant is a ghost, and Glass struck a haunting figure stumbling back from the dead to kill the men who abandoned him. Yet the true ghost in The Revenant is work. Glass did not drop into a natural or an existential wilderness when he got mauled. He was just doing his job, and his job, as Daniel Pott’s letter proves beyond a doubt, hurt. Men who harvested wild animals for a living in the nineteenth century, whether they killed beavers, deer, bison, seals, or whales, often put their bodies on the line. Violence against nature boomeranged back as violence against workers. And being tough did not protect men from damage. The only safe spots in these businesses were company boardrooms and investors’ mansions. It’s fitting that an actor who starred as a penny-stock tycoon in his last movie may finally bring home the top acting prize for his portrayal of a hunter. The two characters are not as far apart as they seem. Capitalism inspired the adventures of both Wall Street wolves and western bear men.

Further exploration:

Jon Coleman is also the author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (Yale University Press, 2004), winner of the W. Turrentine Jackson Award from the Western History Association and the John H. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association.

For more on recent American movies that explore the past, including an interview with Coleman on the Hugh Glass legend, see the February 2016 podcast of Backstory with the American History Guys.

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