William Henry Ashley

c. 1778 - March 26, 1838)

Ashley, William Henry, fur trader (c. 1778-Mar. 26, 1838). Born in chesterfield County, Virginia, he migrated to Missouri c. 1802, settling at St. Genevieve, becoming a trader and operating mines. He became a lieutenant colonel in the War of 1812, and a Brigadier General of militia in 1821. He moved to St. Louis in 1819, was elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1820, and became associated with Andrew Henry in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. On February 13, 1822, he ran his famous advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, seeking a hundred "enterprising young men" for the fur-collecting business. Henry managed the first expedition, Ashley, as supplier, reaching the Yellowstone in October 1822, dropping back down the river before winter. In March, 1823, he ascended the Missouri again but April 2 his expedition was attacked at the Arikara villages and forced to withdraw. Ashley and others now joined Colonel Leavenworth for an indecisive campaign against the Indians, but the river was cleared and Ashley continued his fur operations, sending Jedediah Smith and an overland party to the Green River, and himself returning to St. Louis. Henry withdrew from the partnership, and in 1824 Ashley made a winter journey to the Green, directing spring trapping operations. He made a perilous boat journey some distance down the Green, returning for a trappers' rendezvous on Henry's Fork July 1, 1825. Ashley, naming Smith to take charge of his trappers, descended the Yellowstone and Missouri to St. Louis, arriving in early October 1825, and sent Smith back toward the mountains, catching up with him in the spring of 1826. At the rendezvous in Cache Valley that summer, he sold out to Smith, David Jackson and William Sublette, agreeing to supply them with trade goods. Ashley reached St. Louis again in September 1826. He entered politics, was elected to the House of Representatives, was defeated twice for governor, and died of pneumonia, being buried on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. He left an estate of $50,000, was married three times, but had no children. "Few individuals. . . exercised a greater influence on the course of the fur trade in the Far West." He organized the rendezvous system, pioneered with employment of free trappers rather than hired trappers or Indian tribes, established durable routes to the fur country, and conducted an important exploration or two. He appears to have been honest as well as able.


Dale L Morgan, ed., The West of William H. Ashley . . . 1822-1838. Denver, Old West Publishing Co., 1964