Hugh Glass: The Evolution of a Legend

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Claire Kaufman

Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons.

The fur trader and mountain man Hugh Glass – the heroic protagonist of The Revenant – has been captivating audiences for almost two centuries. The first known publication describing Glass being left for dead in the wilderness was written by James Hall in the 1825 edition of The Port Folio. There was a boom of interest in 1830s and 1840s, with other authors repeating Hall’s account and adding new information to the story. Even Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film (based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel) is not the first cinematic depiction of Glass; another version of the story appeared as Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring the Oscar-nominated actor Richard Harris.

Given that the factual aspects of Glass’s life are spotty at best, ample room has been left for storytellers to embellish the details when weaving Glass into the historical tapestry of the fur trade. Of all chapters of his life, it is the brutal attack by a grizzly bear, subsequent survival against all odds and quest for vengeance that are the most captivating. Yet despite this core story, many elements of the legend have evolved over time. Continue reading

“Inspired by True Events”: The Fur Trade, The Revenant, and Humanity

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Ted Binnema

Jim Bridger. Wikimedia Commons.

Jim Bridger. Wikimedia Commons.

The Revenant’s trailer indicates that the movie is “inspired by true events.” True, the names of all of its main characters—Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, John Fitzgerald, and Andrew Henry—are names of actual mountain men, and the movie is obviously inspired by William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s brigade of 1823.

The claim that a movie is “inspired by,” “based on,” or is actually a “true story,” influences viewers’ perceptions of movies.  But in my opinion, moviegoers should assume that movies are works of fiction—not documentaries—regardless of any claims. I won’t belabor the fact that there is very little correlation between known historical events and The Revenant. Others have already done so.

I think it is more interesting to explore what historians know about actual events, so that viewers might be in a better position to review the movie as a work of serious fiction—something it was intended to be. Continue reading

Memorial Dissonance in the Garden of Remembrance

By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the fourth post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]


The Garden of Remembrance at the National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein was inaugurated at the end of November 2015.  It is located in the the Free State (former independent Boer, now Afrikaner, republic of the Orange Free State). The Garden is dedicated to “the more than 51 927 black and white woman [sic] and children who died in the concentration camps during the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) 1899-1902.” The names of about 35,000 of the over 50,000 who died in the camps were collected and the list of names that forms the focus of the

The concentration camps were created by the British in their effort to defeat the Boers and incorporate the different regions and their populations into the South African Republic. Significantly, this included the Witswatersrand gold fields located near Johannesburg in the then Boer Republic of the Transvaal. Given the Boers’ decision to engage to guerrilla-style warfare, and their reliance on Boer farmers scattered across the countryside for information, food, and other supplies, the British rounded up white women, children, and the elderly and all blacks in rural areas and re-located them to what turned out to be deadly concentration camps. The Women’s Memorial, inaugurated in 1913, and now the Garden of Remembrance, commemorate those who died, more often than not of disease. Continue reading

Canada’s History and the First World War Centennial: A Conversation has an announcement!  With contributors’ approval, Canada’s History will be selecting posts from the “Canada’s First World War” series on for inclusion in Canada’s Great War Album.   The album is Canada’s History’s online tribute to people and stories from the war, and carries on from their book project that recognized the centennial of the war’s outbreak.

The arrangement gives contributors to the “Canada’s First World War” series a chance to share their work with another community, and expand our collective discussion about the war’s history and legacy.  This is also an opportunity to broaden the reach of, and continue its work of connecting the public with the past.  To mark the start of this arrangement, we are running this post, in which Canada’s History answers some questions we posed via e-mail earlier this year.


Q (The editors of the “Canada’s First World War” series) – Could you start with an introduction to our arrangement?

A (Canada’s History) – Canada’s History is dedicated to bringing our audiences new ideas and perspectives of Canadian history. We recognize that provides a public platform for scholars to present and discuss their work and we hope to extend this platform across Canada using our websites and Canada’s History magazine. We understand that there are many stories within Canadian history and we want to make as many of them available to the public as possible. By working with we can continue to work towards this starting with the First World War.


The Canada’s History logo. (All images in this post were provided by Canada’s History.)

Continue reading

Write for Us!

writing-hand-1443450529gznOver the past year, much has changed at Long time editors Ian Milligan and Kaleigh Bradley left the project as their careers have taken them in different directions, while we’ve added three new contributing editors to the team (Welcome Stephanie Bangarth, Erika Dyck, and Colin Coates!). Following New Directions in Active History, a conference we held last fall, we launched a new exhibits program and revamped our ‘papers section’ into one more focused on ‘featured projects.’ Over this time we’ve moved increasingly towards publishing series of short essays, on topics including Confederation, Indigenous history, Marijuana policy, and Canada’s history of welcoming refugees, and Technoscience. Canada’s First World War, a web series edited by Sarah Glassford, Chris Shultz, Nathan Smith and Jon Weier, has published nearly forty essays and tomorrow will launch a new partnership as part of their work (I won’t spoil the surprise here!).

As we begin a new publishing season, we want to encourage renewed participation in the project. Over the years we’ve identified weaknesses in our online publishing in areas such as Indigenous and Black-Canadian histories, histories of abilities, as well as imbalance in the cultural, class and gender of our authors. Though we have worked to rectify these gaps, as a volunteer-run and submission-based project, our content is only as rich as the diversity of our contributors. As such, we would like to broaden the team working on this project in three ways:

  • New contributors: If you have a short 800-1,200 word essay that you think would be of interest to our readership (historians and history-professionals, policymakers, journalists, and the broader public), please send it along to Submissions should be clearly-written and original, and we encourage the inclusion of images and other media. We can usually get new posts up within a couple of weeks.
  • New Regular Contributors: On Thursdays, we run posts written by people who write for us on a regular basis (4-5 times a year). Taking on this task allows you to develop ideas over time, become more familiar with the project as a whole, and, for many, provide opportunities for structured reflection on key issues facing our work as historians.
  • New Contributing Editors: This year we introduced new contributing editor positions. People who have agreed to build the project in this way help to invite new contributors to the project and/or have coordinated a theme week or web series for the site.

If you are interested in taking on any of these roles, or would like more information, please drop an e-mail to

Karl Marx reflects on the Subject of Confederation

By Mark Leier

Marx learning about Confederation

Karl Marx consulting the so-called “Fathers of Confederation”

Deep in the archives of the Society for the History of Anarchism and Marxism, (SHAM) I discovered a hitherto unknown letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels. Dated 21 July 1867, the bulk of the letter is a reaction to the confederation of Canada, which had been proclaimed twenty days earlier. It is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, Marx paid scarce attention to Canada in his work. There are only three references to the country in Capital, and these are incidental; there are nearly as many references to oral sex.[1]

Second, throughout the letter, the events in Canada are cast explicitly in the light of his own work, especially The Communist Manifesto, written with Engels in 1848, and Capital, which Marx was preparing for the publisher at the time of this letter. Thus we see Marx applying his method of historical investigation in a concrete case.

Unless otherwise noted, Marx’s quotations are from the Manifesto. Where other work is drawn upon, I have added citations and explanatory material in footnotes.

Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 21 July 1867, London, England Continue reading

Was Laurier Canada’s Obama?

By Elsbeth Heaman

CaptureUntil 1887, the national Liberal party of Canada was led primarily from Ontario by statesmen hostile to the fiscal importuning of the other provinces. It bore a heavy impress from George Brown, who had largely based his political career on denouncing Catholics and French-Canadians for holding Canada back from its progressive destiny. But after Edward Blake lost yet another election that he should have won, given the strength of popular opinion against John A. Macdonald in other regions of Canada (especially in Nova Scotia and Quebec), the party leadership reversed its Brownian orientation and installed a Catholic French Canadian as its leader. Many Anglo-Protestant supremacists were shocked and appalled at the choice and they were more shocked and appalled when Laurier won the election of 1896. Sir Charles Tupper won a plurality of the popular vote and he held Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and much of Ontario and Manitoba, but Laurier won an overwhelming victory in Quebec that cemented other successes into a plurality of seats. The country would enter the 20th century, “Canada’s century,” with a French-Canadian Catholic at its head.

Laurier, were he alive today, would probably point to the parallels between his situation and that in the United States in 2016. The election of both Obama and Laurier signaled a new political era, where the old “race” hostilities could be turned into something more consensual and progressive. But in both countries, something different happened. In both cases the out party, which had a nativist base, stoked that base with more or less overt nativist attacks on the prime minister/president by yoking it to anti-establishment sentiment.[1] The result was to heighten rather than to diminish popular racism. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety: American Journalism

By Sean Graham

Of all the weird, wild, and crazy things that have happened during this year’s American election cycle, one of the strangest is how both parties have accused the media of being biased against their candidate. On the Republican side, the distrust of the ‘lamestream media’ has been a mainstay, particularly after Sarah Palin’s infamous Katie Couric interview in 2008. Given Donald Trump’s fondness for appearing on cable news programs, however, it might have been reasonable to expect that this would change, but he continues to criticize the media for what he claims is unfair coverage of his campaign. On the Democratic side, however, the extent to which Hillary Clinton has avoided the press, particularly her complete avoidance of press conferences, has been somewhat surprising.

One of the reasons why so many people think that the media is biased against their candidate is the media environment in which we currently live. There are so many outlets that a lot of people only consume media that is in agreement with their worldview and anything that challenges their preconceived ideology is viewed as biased. The result is an echo chamber in which the public is not fully informed.

One could argue, however, that some of the major changes we’ve seen in journalism can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. From the Kennedy administration to Vietnam to Watergate, the relationship between the American public and the media drastically changed during those twenty years. In addition, it was during this period that newspapers expanded to include more ‘soft’ news in an effort to increase sales. This commodification of journalism, led to some major changes in the way in which many people consume the news.

Continue reading

The Bering Land Bridge Theory: Not Dead Yet

Alan MacEachern

Maybe you read some of the recent news articles: “The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge, Study Says.” “A Final Blow to Myth of How People Arrived in the Americas.” “New Study Suggests Route of First Humans to North America was not Western Canada.” Maybe you read some of the social media responses to those articles: “Finally! The Bering Strait theory shot down!”OMG heard on the CBC that Bering Land Bridge Theory – one of my very favourite theories – has been discredited.” “Scientists say first North American humans did not cross the Bering Straight ice bridge after all.” And maybe, since you’ll soon be teaching or TAing a Canadian history survey course and will almost immediately come up against the question of how to talk about the peopling of the continent by the ancestors of today’s First Nations, you think you will have to radically rework that section of your notes.

Maybe not.

Despite a lot of breathless commentary, the new findings published in the journal Nature by a team of paleogeneticists do not actually overturn much of the scientific consensus on how the Americas were peopled. Continue reading

Thank You Kaleigh Bradley – repost

In our final repost of the summer we’d like to highlight the work of an outgoing member of our editorial collective. Kaleigh Bradley joined the project as a regular contributor in 2010 with a post “Memento Mori On the Web: What Happens When Photos are Digitized?” In 2012, she took on the role of book review editor, before joining the editorial collective. During her time helping build, Kaleigh has edited dozens of blog posts, coordinated theme weeks with guest editors, and helped organize the New Directions in Active History conference in October 2015. Although she is stepping back from her work as an editor, we hope that from time to time she will continue to write timely and thoughtful posts like the one featured below . The editorial collective thanks Kaleigh for her many contributions to the site and for all of her help in growing this project over the past six years.

Why Non-Indigenous Canadians Need to Share the Burden of the Residential School System

An earlier version of this post was originally published on, as part of a special series of essays and book recommendations called Talking History. Follow the link to see the rest of the series and to explore the more than 80,000 Canadian books listed on the site. The author would like to thank Crystal Fraser for her comments and feedback.

By Kaleigh Bradley


Cover photo of Bev Sellars’ Memoir.

In the nineteenth century, near present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Chief Shingwaukonse dreamt of a teaching wigwam where Anishinaabe children could learn vocational and academic skills. Chief Shingwaukonse wanted children to have these tools so that they could preserve Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language), and adapt to a modernizing economy and society. Indigenous peoples, with the help of church missionaries and government officials, sought the creation of schools for their children, but the schools later became an instrument for cultural genocide.

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system began in the early nineteenth century with the missionary work of different Christian groups across Canada. Government and churches designed the IRS system to assimilate and transform Indigenous children into self-reliant citizens by removing parental involvement in their intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development. Schools were perceived as an ideal solution to the late-nineteenth-century “problem” of incorporating Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian settler-society. In 1876, the federal government consolidated the IRS system with the passing of the Indian Act, and by the late 1880s, government-funded schools were operating across Canada, run by Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic missionaries and volunteers. Did you know that Gordon IRS, the last residential school, closed less than twenty years ago in 1996?

Schools were often sites of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, and the legacy of the schools—language loss, broken families, children alienated from their communities and culture, addictions and mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, health issues due to disease and neglect—continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities. Institutional life was often traumatic for students, and the education received typically left them ill-equipped for capitalist ways of living. The schools did not lead to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, although they caused irreparable suffering and damage to Indigenous communities and cultures. Indigenous cultures are no longer as vibrant today as they were prior to the creation of the IRS system.

It’s important to note that the history of residential schools is also a story of survival, resiliency, mobilization, and cultural revitalization. Students and communities often resisted assimilation and survivors acquired the tools for political resistance and mobilization.

In the fall of 2011, I was hired as a research consultant to research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had recently graduated from my Master’s program and in this economy, I was grateful to have a job. My project manager told me to show up at a church archive the following Monday, and I was sent detailed instructions along with a file that was over four hundred pages, which outlined the history of residential schools. I was never taught this history during elementary school, high school, and even as an undergraduate student in university. I was to uncover links between the schools and Indigenous communities and in particular, I was supposed to flag anything in the archives that suggested evidence of abuse, neglect, missing children, or unmarked cemeteries. Continue reading