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William Ashley 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.
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
In the winter of 1822 Ashley, in partnership with Andrew Henry, advertised in St. Louis for “ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.” Duly licensed by the Secretary of War, who held, although he could hardly effectively exercise, . control over ventures into the Indian country, Ashley took off that spring and learned very quickly that he had taken on an extremely difficult assignment.
Nobody knew much about the West then, except that it was full of Indians (most of them apt to be hostile) and that Lewis and Clark had gone all the way to the Oregon country by following the Missouri. What Ashley’s men discovered was that for their purposes the Missouri was not a very good route. The river itself was hard to navigate, and once they reached what is now the Dakota-Montana country they found that it was held by energetic tribes like the Sioux, the Ankaras, and the Blackfeet, who definitely did not want white trappers wandering about their territory. After losing men and goods to the Indians and the river, Ashley found a new approach. Instead of following the Missouri all the way, he and his men would go mostly overland, on horseback, following the Platte and then going straight off into the mountains.
That set the pattern. Ashley’s men discovered and used the South Pass across the Continental Divide—a discovery that would be most useful, a quarter of a century later, when the covered-wagon trains got going—and fanned out across the enormous interior which no Americans had ever seen before. Here there were mountains, and mountain streams, with abundant beaver; here also were Indians, touchy and unpredictable, likely to make pledges of undying friendship one day and to rob a party of all it possessed the next; and here, also, was the country where the caravans would come once a year to meet the mountain men and get the furs back to St. Louis.
Getting the furs back was not always easy. Let Ashley describe incidents attending a homeward trip in the summer of 1825:
“On the ad day [of] July, I set out on my way homewards with 50 men, 25 of whom were to accompany me to a navigable point of the Big Horn River thence to return with the horses employed in the transportation of the furs. I had forty-five packs of beaver cached a few miles east of our direct route. I took with me 20 men, passed by the place, raised the cache, and proceeded in a direction to join the other party, but previous to joining them I was twice attacked by the Indians.…”
The first attack was by sixty Blackfeet, who came in at dawn “yelling in the most hideous manner” and getting away with almost all of Ashley’s horses. He got in touch with his other party, obtained more horses, kept on going, and the next night was attacked by a party of Crows, who were repulsed after a sharp fight, “without any injury to us. The next day I joined my other party and proceeded direct to my place of embarkation just below the Big Horn mountain where I arrived on the yth day of august.” In October a St. Louis paper announced that “our fellow-citizen, Genl. Ashley,” had just returned from a sj.ooo-mile trip with “one of the richest cargoes of furs that ever arrived at St. Louis.”
It was beginning to pay off, and Ashley at once prepared to go back to the mountains. Before the month ended, the St. Louis paper reported that he was off again: “In the short space of 25 days from the time of his return, he has collected together, and organized a most extensive party, consisting of 70 men, 160 mules and horses, with an outfit of merchandize, estimated in all, at $20,000.…” It added that “the amount of capital vested in this single party, will give some idea of the great importance of the fur trade to this state.”
This trip also paid off; and then it developed that Ashley knew when to get out. In 1826 he sold his interests to Jedediah S. Smith, David E. Jackson, and William L. Sublette, remaining in St. Louis simply as the new partnership’s supplier. He had put the mountain fur-trade on a new basis, he had gained a moderate fortune, and he had brought about the discovery of a feasible route to the western country. More important, perhaps, was the fact that he had begun to get, and had caused others to get, an idea of the national stake in the western country. He at first felt that no one would ever really want to settle there—it did not seem to be good for anything except furs—but more and more he came to see that it was to the nation’s interest to assert its rights in the West, to check British infiltration from the north, and to get enough troops there to keep the Indian tribes at peace. He helped to orient the thinking of the powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton; most important of all, he had (so to speak) turned the mountain men loose, and had given powerful impetus to the process that finally led the United States to the Pacific.