Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

William Ashley:

William Ashley was born in Virgina.  The date of his birth is uncertain as is when he relocated to Missouri.  Based on statements Ashley himself made, he probably was born in 1782 and moved to Missouri in 1802.  He most certainly was a resident by 1805 when he is documented as witnessing the marriage of Andrew Henry, who would at various times would be Ashley’s friend, associate and partner in numerous different business ventures.  
Ashley’s earliest venture, from approximately 1808 till 1811 was to bring supplies and goods from New York to St Genevieve, Missouri, first by pack horse, and then later by steamship.  Probably during this period Ashley married Mary Able.  Mary Able’s father was quite well to do and was a holder of a large Spanish Land Grant. Through this marriage Ashley aquired some land claims and as a result became involved in land speculation.  
Probably about 1811 Ashley had moved to Potosi where he was involved in mining ventures in which he partnered with Andrew Henry, both for lead and for saltpetre.  Salt petre is a critical component of gunpowder manufacturing which lead Ashley into the business of gunpowder manufacturing with which he was involved until as late as 1819.  Over these years there were several major explosions with severe damage and loss of life and this may have lead Ashley to abandon this venture.  
Ashley was active in the Missouri Territorial Millitia shortly after relocating and during the War of 1812 advanced to Lieutenant Colonel of a regiment with Andrew Henry as his Major.  In 1821 he reached the rank of Brigadier General of the militia, thus aquiring the title of “General” by which he was subsequently known.  
In 1819 Ashley moved to St. Louis, where he extended his real estate operations.  He also became active in politics at this time and was elected Lieutenant Governor for the new state of Missouri in 1820.  Ashley’s wife died in November 1821, and he made an unsuccessful run for Governor in 1824.  It was in the early 1820’s that Ashley entered the fur trade with Andrew Henry, who had extensive previous experience with Manuel Lisa, as a partner.  On February 13, 1822 he ran his famous advertisement for one hundred enterprising young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source and be employed for one to three years.  The men who responded in 1822 and for the expedition of 1823 would eventually become a who’s who of American Mountain Men, including such greats as Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Mike Fink, David Jackson, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Clyman, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, and Moses “Black” Harris.
The exploits and adventures of these men were to become legendary.

For this new fur company, Henry was to be in charge of field operations, and Ashley was to be responsible for procuring and transporting supplies to the mountains.  The company was to operate in a manner unlike other fur company of that time.  Firstly, the company men would obtain furs primarily by hunting and trapping themselves, rather than through trade with the Indians, although they would trade with Indians when opportunities presented.  As early as 1807-1810 Manuel Lisa and Andrew Henry had recognized that Indians could not be depended on for a steady flow of furs. Trapping themselves would present certain legal difficulties, in that the federal license issued to Ashley and Henry were for trading only, even though they intended to trap.  Although some Federal officials did express concern over the distinction, it was never enforced.  The Blackfeet Indians in whose territory the some of the trapping was to occur, quite clearly understand the distinction, and they would choose to enforce it with the tomahawk and the lance.

The second operational difference was the way in which this new company was to hire and pay its employees.  The only engages, or fully salaried personnel were the clerks and boatmen.  All others, in exchange for firearms, traps, and other supplies and a wage, were to turn over to the company one-half of their fur take, the other half which would be purchased by the company at prevailing prices.  This innovation would eventually evolve into the Free Trapper.  

In 1822 Henry commenced ascended the Missouri River in April, proceeding as far at the mouth of the Yellowstone River where he established a fort. Trapping was to take place in the region around the fort.  The supply boat left St. Louis a month after Henry with a keelboat full of ammunition, traps, trade goods and other supplies. Ashley didn’t accompany this boaat. Disaster struck when the keelboat loaded with some $10,000 worth of supplies was less than 300 miles upriver from St. Louis.  The boat’s mast became entangled in an overhaning tree, the boat turned sideways to the current, was pulled over and within seconds sunk.  A dispatch was sent immediately to Ashley in St. Louis.  In 18 days Ashley arranged for credit, purchased replacement supplies, and obtained another boat, and got it started upriver.  This time Ashley accompanied the boat upriver.  Through his energy, he was able to supply Henry at the fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone by October, 1822.  Leaving Henry and his men to pursued trapping and trading, Ashley returned to St. Louis almost immediately to put together the 1823 expedition.   

By late spring of 1823, the second Ashley-Henry brigade had traveled up the Missouri River as far as the Arikara villages.  Historically, fur brigades had often had difficulty getting past the Arikara villages, and in 1823, it was to be a disaster.  After a difficult bout of trading on May 31, a nighttime altercation in the village involving a native woman resulted in one of Ashley’s men being killed and the entire town aroused against the trappers.  The next morning the Indians opened fire from the fortifications of their village, killing fifteen of Ashley’s men, wounding an additional nine, and dealing a crippling blow to Ashley’s plans for that season.  Ashley withdrew down the river, until Andrew Henry could be summoned to help.

In the mean time, Colonel Leavenworth, at Fort Atkinson, hastened to aid Ashley. On July 30, 1823, Colonel Leavenworth’s “Missouri Legion”, composed of 230 army regulars and artillery, 40 men from Joshua Pilcher’s outfit, and 80 of Ashley’s men was ready to take action against the Arikara. The legion was joined by about 750 mounted Sioux warriors, who took advantage of this opportunity to score coup against their tribal enemies and to perhaps steal some corn and squash.  On August 9th, hostilities were opened between the Sioux and the Arikara, after which the Arikara fled back inside their fortified villages.  After several days of indecisive skirmishes, the Arikara Indians fled their villages during the night.  The next day, and contrary to orders, somehow the villages were fired and burned to the ground.  This campaign caused the dispersal of several thousand angry Arikara warriors throughout the region, resulting in an environment that was ultimately much more dangerous for the fur companies than it had been before.  

It was now late August and with no time left to re-outfit and return to the field Ashley and Henry were facing financial ruin.  Even with the Arikara gone from their villages, the Missouri River was plainly too dangerous to rely on as a means of transportation to and from the mountains.  Ashley and Henry decided to travel overland by horse avoiding the dangers of the Missouri.  Henry would take a party and return to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and Ashley would send out another party, captained by Jedediah Smith, due west out of Fort Kiowa eventually to link up with Henry.  As they traveled, Smith’s party would rediscover South Pass.  After seeing Smith off, Ashley again returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1823 to prepare for the 1824 season.  Henry abandoned the post on the Yellowstone because of increasing hostility of Indians in the area. Henry lead his men to the Wind River area where they operated with some success.  

Ashley spent the summer of 1824 distracted with a vigorous, though unsuccessful, campaign for Governor of Missouri.  When Henry returned to St. Louis in August, he had had enough of the dangers and uncertainty of the fur trade in the far west.  He would withdraw from the partnership, allowing Ashley to assume full control of the company, and full responsiblity for its debts.  In September, Fitzpatrick, one of Ashley’s field captains, returned to St. Louis.  Fitzpatrick reported on the discovery of the South Pass, a pass that would easily allow passage by wagons.  He also brought work of rich beaver country beyond the continental divide.  

Ashley delayed leaving to resupply his hunters and trappers working in the mountains till early November 1824, in part hoping that Andrew Henry would reconsider his decision to retire.  On this trip Ashley took a new route, traveling southward along the Rocky Mountain front range to the Cache La Poudre River, thence westward across the spine of the Rocky Mountains before dropping into what is now called North Park.  Ashley’s party, including Clyman, Fitzpatrick, Zacharias Ham and James Beckwourth left Fort Atkinson for the mountains early in November 1824.  It included a total of 25 men, 50 horses and one wagon, which probably didn’t make it too far.  The trek quickly became a nightmare, with knee-deep snow and fierce winds.  Food and fodder were in short supply.  In addition, the village of Loup Pawnee, where Ashley had hoped to obtain food and additional horses couldn’t be found.  Rations were reduced to a half-pint of flour per man per day, along with the meat from the horses that had died of starvation or exposure thrown in.  

At the Forks of the Platte River, they caught up with the Loup Pawnee, and were able to obtain food, horses and buffalo robes.  Up to this point they had been following the route taken by Clyman, and later by Fitzpatrick the previous summer.  Ashley now decided that they would follow the South Platte and thence up the Cache la Poudre, a route that none in the party had ever traveled.  This route is at high elevations and rough even under good conditions.  When Ashley’s party passed through it must have been choked with ice and snow.  Somehow they succeeded in passing through the mountains and arrived on the Laramie Plains, where there was fodder for the horses, and herds of buffalo, antelope and mountain sheep for food.  They were able to start trapping beaver, however, the going was slow because of the poor condition of the horses.  They progressed generally to the north and west, and by late March were at the continental divide near South Pass.

On April 22, 1825, Ashley split his party into four groups.  Clyman was chosen as a leader of a group of six men, including Jim Beckwourth, with the purpose of trapping the headwaters of the Seeds-ka-dee (Green River) to the north and west.  In addition to trapping the headwaters of the Seeds-ka-dee, Clyman was try and find parties headed by Jedediah Smith or John H Weber, who had wintered over in the mountains.  In choosing Clyman as a leader Ashley called him one of his “most intelligent and efficient” men. The parties were to gather on or around July 10, 1825 at a location Ashley would indicate with markings at some prominent location along the Seeds-ka-dee. This was the first rendezvous.

At the 1825 rendezvous Ashley discovered that the hunters and trappers in his employ were not only willing to remain in the mountains year round, they would actually prefer not to make the annual round trip to St. Louis. Ashley also took a new partner at this rendezvous, Jedediah Smith.  

After the 1826 rendezvous, Ashley had accumulated sufficient funds to pay off his debts, and was modestly wealthy besides.  He now knew that the greatest profits and least risk lay in supplying the trappers at rendezvous, and not in trapping the furs.  In a complicated transaction, Ashley sold his share of the company to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson and William Sublette.  Ashley would continue to provide supplies and merchandise (at mountain prices. Follow this link to see prices specified in Ashley’s contract with Smith, Jackson and Sublette) to the new company, and would purchase their furs and return them to St. Louis.

William Ashley retired entirely from the fur trade in 1830.  Twice defeated for governor of Missouri, he was elected as a Missouri State Representative to the U.S. Congress in 1831, a position which he held until 1837.  During this time he also continued to speculate in real estate.

In 1838 he died at age 61 of pneumonia.  

To learn more about General William Ashley see the following references:

The Fur Trade, by Paul Chrisler Phillips, published 1961, University of Oklahoma Press, Volume 2

A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific, by Robert M Utley, published 1997 Henry Holt and Company. 392 pages.   

The Beaver Men-Spearheads of Empire, by Mari Sandoz, published 1964, University of Nebraska Press.  332 pages.

The West of William H. Ashley, 1822-1838, edited by Dale Morgan, published 1964, The Old West Publishing Company, Denver Colorado.  

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