Skip to main content


Reading, Writing, And History

April 2024
7min read

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.

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.

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 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.

And here, in Mr. Morgan’s compilation, are the details of the story. The way in which the thing worked—the rivalries of the different fur companies, the activities of the Indian agents and the army officers who were always on the fringes of the trade, the complicated relationships with the various Indian tribes, the growing suspicion that much Indian hostility was inspired by British interests anxious to secure the Oregon country and as much of the rest as they could get—all of this is spelled out here, not so much in one narrative as in the concretion of many separate documents. It provides a fascinating glimpse into an important chapter of this country’s history.

Yet the real fascination, perhaps, lies in an intangible: the strange, almost haunting force which pulled all of these men into the West in the first place. Out of what they felt and did, it may be, comes the real basis for the powerful attraction which those simple words, “the West,” have so long had for Americans. Here was the lure of the dangerous unknown, the land whose wonders equalled its perils, the country where men had to risk much but where they also could win much. The national response to that challenge had much to do with the building of America. Perhaps today, when wonder and peril are again visible on the horizon, there will be a similar response… with equally fruitful results?

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.