Reading, Writing, And History

Perhaps the most compelling words in American history are the simple words, “ the West .” From the earliest days, they have been the magnet; they have also been somewhat magical, because they evoke not merely the land where the sun goes down but also the vision of illimitable horizons—the place where there is a crack between the rim of the land and the bowl of the blue sky, through which Americans have always been able to see just a little more than they can ever quite grasp. Those words mean more than they say. They hint of a fabulous country full of wonder and peril, where men risk all they have in order (they hope) to gain more than they can imagine. They somehow lie at the bottom of most of the things we have done.

A century and a half ago they had especial power because the West then was unknown and unpossessed. The Louisiana Purchase was still new, threaded by the great journey of Lewis and Clark leading to the Oregon country, which was yet to be won, and American history then was still in the “maybe” stage. There was a continent to be possessed, but the people who were about to possess it were busy enough with the fraction they already had, and they needed trail breakers.

The trail breakers they finally got, and most of them they have since virtually forgotten; among them, a Virginia-born Missourian named William Henry Ashley, who looked at the blank spaces on the map and concluded that an energetic man could make his fortune there if he tried hard enough. He went into the blank spaces, made his fortune, traced on the map lines that had not been there before he went west, and helped to shape the future course of American history. He is worth a little more space than most of the textbooks usually give him.

Ashley was a general of the Missouri militia, a politician of sorts, an energetic businessman, and a born go-getter with courage and imagination, and he was largely responsible for the development of that most glittering of the West’s romantic figures, the mountain man—the free trapper who explored the western wilderness at imminent peril of his life (which, very often, was lost), knew how to get to Oregon and California before anyone else dreamed of wanting to go there, and put the authentic American stamp on the trackless half of a continent.

Ashley gets his due now in an elaborate and fascinating book by Dale Morgan, The West of William H. Ashley . This is less a biography than a compilation of all of the important contemporary documents relating to Ashley and the Rocky Mountain fur trade. It is the result of twenty years of patient digging, and the endless set of quotations from letters, commercial papers, and army reports is neatly tied together by bits of Mr. Morgan’s connective narrative. It is perhaps a little better adapted to the student than to the general reader, but it stands as a splendid exposition of the way the young republic reached out to explore and at last to get itself ready to possess the vast region of the Louisiana Purchase. Just incidentally, it is also a good illustration of the big things that can come from man’s desire to conduct a business at a profit.

For the fur trade, as Mr. Morgan points out, “was not merely a romantic way of life and a dramatic phase of the exploration of the West; it was also a business, in which a. man risked his life and could go broke very fast.” Ashley neither lost his life nor went broke, although a great many others did, but he was first and foremost a businessman trying to make some money. That he became an important instrument of that mysterious urge we call “manifest destiny” was simply a collateral result.

In any case, Ashley was chiefly responsible for turning the fur trade into the sort of business manifest destiny could use. Previously this trade had been routinized. A trader established himself in or on the fringes of the Indian country, swapped knives and guns and alcohol and other matters for furs, and sent the furs back east to market. Ashley revolutionized it (building on the example set by men of the Northwest Company, in the Columbia River territory) by sending out trappers rather than traders—operators who went wherever they could, collected furs on their own hook, and once a year came to a preselected rendezvous to meet a headquarters caravan which would buy their furs, sell them such supplies as they needed, and provide the occasion for a grand binge that might go on for weeks. These independent operators were the mountain men, the free trappers, the Jim Bridgers and the James Clymans and the Tom Fitzpatricks and all the rest, the legendary men who worked entirely on their own; these were men fearfully exploited, living always on the knife-edge of danger, travelling thousands of miles to get a few packs of furs—and, more or less in spite of themselves, building up the store of knowledge and skill the country needed so much when at last it was readv to oossess the West.

The West of William H. Ashley , edited by Dale L. Morgan. The Old West Publishing Company, Denver. 341 pp. Illustrated.