William Henry Ashley (c. 1778–1838) was a famous fur trader, businessman, and politician who is most well known for revolutionizing the fur trade industry in the American West as a founding partner of the company that eventually became the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
William Henry Ashley Quick Facts
- Full Name: His full name was William Henry Ashley.
- Date of Birth: Ashley was born around 1778 in Virginia.
- Date of Death: Ashley died on March 26, 1838, at the age of 60.
- Fun Fact: The men who worked for Ashley on the first expedition are known as “Ashley’s Hundred.”
Who was William Henry Ashley?
General William Henry Ashley was an American businessman, politician, and military leader. In the 1820s, he played a prominent role in the establishment, expansion, and operation of the fur trade in the American West, including the Rocky Mountain Region.
Very little is known about Ashley’s early life. He was born in either Powhatan County or Chesterfield County, Virginia around 1778. Around 1802, he moved to the Louisiana Territory with his family, while it was still under the control of the French. A year later, the Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
Early Career and Military Service
Ashley settled near present-day St. Genevieve, which is south of St. Louis on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
From there, he operated a plantation and went into business as a supplier for local merchants and businessmen. He also found success mining saltpeter, which he used to manufacture gunpowder. His involvement in the mining business introduced him to Andrew Henry.
He was also involved in local politics as a justice of the peace and an officer in the local militia. During the War of 1812, he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Missouri Militia.
Move to St. Louis and Entry into Politics
Ashley moved to St. Louis in 1819, where he became active in banking and real estate, operating as a land speculator.
Following the Missouri Compromise, Missouri became a state. In 1820, Ashley was elected as the state’s first Lieutenant Governor, serving under Governor Alexander McNair. The following year, he was made a Brigadier General in the militia.
Needing money to pay off debts and to fund his political career, Ashley looked into the lucrative fur trade. At the time, felt hats were popular in Europe, and the demand for pelts, including beaver, was at its peak. At the time the fur trade in the Rocky Mountain Region was dominated by the Missouri Fur Company.
In 1822, Ashley partnered with a friend, Major Andrew Henry, who was already involved in the fur trade in the Rocky Mountain Region as a partner in the Missouri Fur Company. Together, the two of them started the Ashley-Henry Company.
The two planned an expedition and Ashley placed an ad in the St. Louis newspapers, including the Missouri Gazette & Public Advertiser, looking for “one hundred enterprising young men” to sign up for the trip — which was intended to last for up to three years.
Eventually, men like Hugh Glass, Daniel T. Potts, William Sublette, Milton Sublette, James Beckwourth, David Edward Jackson, Joseph Meek, Robert Newell, and Thomas Fitzpatrick signed on as trappers for what would eventually become known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
The first expedition, with 100 men under Henry’s command, left St. Louis in March 1822.
Ashley advertised two more expeditions that followed the path of the first one. The second was led by Daniel Moore. Moore ran into trouble when his keelboats capsized and he lost most of his equipment. Ashley led the third expedition, which carried additional supplies. He met Henry at the Yellowstone River in October 1822. Afterward, Ashley went back downriver and returned to St. Louis for supplies.
Ashley and the Arikara War
Ashley left St. Louis again in March 1823 with more supplies. On June 2, as he ascended the Missouri River, near the border of North Dakota and South Dakota, a band of warriors from the Arikara Tribe attacked the expedition.
The Arikara were upset with the company’s activity in the local fur trade, which increased competition and cut into the Arikira’s profits. There were rumors that agents from the Hudson’s Bay Company were involved in inciting the Arikara to attack. More than 10 of Ashley’s men were killed, and two died later on. Afterward, he was forced to fall back to the mouth of the Cheyenne River where he and his men took shelter for a month.
In the aftermath, Ashley requested assistance from the military, and Colonel Henry Leavenworth arrived with a force made up of soldiers and Sioux warriors. Ashley’s trappers and trappers from the Missouri River Fur Company joined the force. On August 9, Leavenworth attacked the Arikira villages but was forced to fall back. Leavenworth negotiated a treaty with the Arikira on August 11. As he returned to Fort Atkinson, the trappers from the Missouri Fur Company burned the villages, infuriating Leavenworth.
The Arikira War was the first military conflict between the United States and the Indian Tribes in the American West, and it forced Ashley to find other routes westward.
Ashley’s Connection to the Legend of Hugh Glass
Afterward, Ashley returned to Fort Kiowa in South Dakota, where he was joined by Henry and his men. In July, Henry and a group of men, including Hugh Glass, set out for the Yellowstone River. They were about 300 miles northeast of Fort Kiowa, near present-day Shadehill Reservoir, hunting along the Grand River when Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear. Although Glass survived the attack, the injuries he suffered were so brutal that Henry and the others believed he would die. Henry asked for two volunteers to stay with Glass until he passed, while the expedition continued. From there, the story is that James Fitzgerald and one of the great legends of the American Frontier, Jim Bridger, were the men who stayed with Glass. Soon after, believing Glass had died, the two men abandoned him. However, Glass miraculously recovered from his wounds and survived — alone and without food or guns — and crawled through the South Dakota wilderness back to Fort Kiowa — fueled by the desire to have his revenge on the men who left him. However, after finding Bridger, Glass forgave him because he was so young. According to some accounts, Fitzgerald joined the army to escape retaliation. Others claim that Glass forgave Fitzgerald as well.
Ashley’s Connection to the South Pass
Following the incident with the Arikira, Ashley returned to St. Louis, but he sent a trapping party overland to the mountains to hunt in the area around the Green River. Led by Jedediah Smith, the expedition left Fort Kiowa and headed toward the Rocky Mountains. Smith was joined by Thomas Fitzpatrick, William Sublette, James Clyman, Thomas Eddie, Edward Rose, and several other men to the Rockies.
During the trip, Smith and his men were the first Americans to explore the Black Hills Region. It was there that Smith was attacked by a bear, which mauled him, but he survived.
In order to make it to the Green River, Smith and his men needed to find the legendary South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. The pass was originally used in 1812 by Robert Stuart and an expedition for the Pacific Fur Company, which was owned by John Jacob Astor. The location of the pass was kept confidential, although rumors it existed made their way around the community of trappers. In the spring of 1824, Smith and his men found the Green River and realized they had gone through the legendary South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. Smith sent Fitzpatrick back to St. Louis to deliver the news to Ashley.
Rocky Mountain Rendezvous
In 1824, Henry left the partnership due to the poor financial return on the first expeditions. As a result, Ashley traveled to the Green River and helped direct the trapping operations for the spring. He traveled down the Green River but returned in time for the first Rocky Mountain Trapper’s Rendezvous at Henry’s Fork near present-day McKinnon, Wyoming on July 1, 1825.
The rendezvous — a gathering of trappers and hunters — was Ashley’s invention. Each year, from 1825 to 1840. A location was chosen and the men, regardless of what company they worked for, gathered from early summer to mid-summer. It was a camp and market that operated at the end of the trapping season and facilitated the transportation of furs back east.
The annual “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous” allowed Ashley to focus on organizing and equipping large trapping parties and providing a place where the trappers would bring their furs to be traded for supplies. This system was more efficient and profitable than earlier methods, which relied on Indian trading posts.
The first rendezvous was highly profitable for Ashley, who returned to St. Louis with 100 packs of beaver pelts valued at $50,000.
Ashley and Politics
Ashley’s success in the fur trade provided him with the funding he needed to follow his political ambitions. He served as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives and later as a U.S. Congressman. He also held several military positions, including serving as a General during the Black Hawk War.
Ashley Leaves the Fur Trade
At the Cache Valley Rendezvous in 1826, Ashley sold the business to Jedediah Smith, David E. Jackson, and William Sublette. He remained involved, but only as a supplier. This allowed him to send goods and products to the annual rendezvous, where he sold items at a significant markup. The agreement allowed Ashley to pay off his debts, and he said, “I now wash my hands of the toils of the Rocky Mountains.”
Later Years and Death
Ashley remained active in politics, running for governor of Missouri and being elected to Congress in 1831, 1832, and 1834. However, he lost his bid for re-election in 1838 and died soon after of pneumonia. He was buried on a steep hill, overlooking the Missouri River.
What did William Henry Ashley Do?
Ashley Founded the Ashley-Henry Fur Company
Ashley’s fur trading career began in 1822 with the formation of the William H. Ashley-Andrew Henry Fur Company, which eventually became the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He sent two keelboats up the Missouri River in the spring of that year, with one of the boats sinking and costing Ashley a significant amount of money. Despite this setback, he continued to equip and send expeditions up the river and eventually established Fort Henry at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
Ashley’s company was the fourth fur trading company in the region, following the American Fur Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Missouri Fur Company. Ashley was especially competitive with the Hudson’s Bay Company and John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.
Revolutionized the Fur Trade
Ashley is credited with revolutionizing the fur trade by introducing the rendezvous system, where trade goods and supplies were brought to a central, predetermined location for the mountain men and Indians to exchange their furs. The system was devised after the events of the Arikira War.
Ashley believed the trappers could spend more time hunting if someone went to meet them and transport the pelts back to St. Louis. He also realized he could sell goods and products to them at higher prices. The system was more efficient than the previous method of having trappers come to trading posts and helped increase profits for the company. The annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous was held from 1825 to 1840 at various locations.
The agreement Ashley and Henry had with their trappers was also innovative. Other companies acquired their furs through trade with Indian tribes. Ashley and Henry wanted their trappers to obtain furs on their own. They provided the trappers with a horse and supplies, including a saddle, rifle, traps, and an axe. This served as half the payment for the trapper. Each trapper was also allowed to keep half of his furs, which served as the other half of his payment. In order to deliver the furs, the trapper had to go to the rendezvous, where he could sell the other half of his furs and buy additional supplies.
Significance of Willam Henry Ashley
William Henry Ashley is important to United States history for his role in establishing the fur trade, which encouraged the exploration of the American West.
William Henry Ashley was a renowned American businessman, fur trader, and explorer of the early 19th century. He was a key figure in the organization and operation of the Rocky Mountain fur trade during the 1820s and is known for his significant contributions to the industry.
His impact on the Rocky Mountain fur trade was significant, and his organization and system of rendezvous helped to establish the industry as a profitable business. Despite his short time in the mountains, his legacy lives on in the annals of American history.
Despite his short time in the mountains, Ashley’s impact on the Rocky Mountain fur trade was significant, and his organization and system of rendezvous helped to establish the industry as a profitable business. His leadership abilities, business acumen, and political ambition have made him a notable figure in American history.
The rendezvous system and Ashley’s leadership were instrumental in the success of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and his contributions to the industry were long-lasting. Ashley’s legacy lives on in the history of the American frontier and the fur trade.