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History of William Henry Ashley, Utah
Courtesy of Utah History Encyclopedia. (Links Added)

William Henry Ashley was born a poor man in Powhatan County,Virginia in 1778. He later moved to St. Genevieve, Mo. (then Upper Louisiana), in 1803. This area had been controlled by the Spanish until late 1800 when it was ceded by Spain to France. On Easter, 1803, Napoleon announced his decision to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Ashley was in this new territorty the year that it became part of the U.S. He arrived in this new territory with "a knowledge of surveying and a slight familiarity with geology".

Lewis & Clark began their historic expedition from near St. Louis May 21, 1804 and returned to St. Loius on Sept. 23, 1806. They used the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers much the same way that Ashley and his men would in later years.

Ashley moved to St. Louis around 1808 and became a Brigadier General in the Missouri Militia during the War of 1812. Before the war, he operated a gunpowder factory after discovering a cave in Texas County, Missouri that was a source of saltpeter, a vital ingredient of gunpowder. His future partner, Andrew Henry owned a factory that produced bullets. This is how the two earned their first fortunes.

After the war, Ashley became a merchant and performed some surveying. Ashley was then elected as Missouri's first Lieutenant Governor in 1820 and served until 1824.

I call Ashley 'the reluctant adventurer'. According to Don Berry, in his book, A Majority of Scoundrels, he states that Ashley's first love and focus was politics (served as a U.S. Representative for the Jacksonian party between 1831 to 1837) and he wanted to become the governor of the state. But, then as now, politics requires money, so Ashley turned to the fur business as a source of revenue to support his run for the governorship.

In 1822, William Ashley & Andrew Henry began posting the now famous ads seeking the 100 enterprising young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source. Ashley was the businessman behind the operations while Henry was the field commander. Henry had knowledge of the fur business and had been to the Snake River area in 1811.

Berry describes Ashley as being a cautious and an ambitious man. He was in his mid forties at this time, and becoming known as a great adventurer would probably be considered ludicrous by Ashley. He picked good men to do the job, but when those he had hired were unable to do the job or when, as Henry did, retired from the business, he went into the field and personally led the expeditions. As a result of these explorations, he made his place in history and helped open the lands west of the Rockies to the new country of the United States.

In 1822, the new company of Ashley and Henry attempted to send three keelboats up the Missouri River. Henry led the first of the three all the way to the mouth of the Yellowstone and built a post that later became known as Fort Henry. This expedition consisted of 150 men, 60 horses and one keelboat. The second keelboat met disaster and sunk with all the provisions onboard for a loss of $10,000. Ashley then made the decision to lead the expedition with the third boat to meet Henry.

After reaching the Yellowstone and delivering his supplies and men, Ashley immediately returned to St. Louis to start building the supply expedition for the men now stationed at Fort Henry. Jedediah Smith and a small group of men accompanied Ashley downriver.

In 1823, Ashley made another expedition up the Missouri. At the Arikara Villages near today's Pierre, South Dakota, the expedition ran into trouble.

In my research, it appears that Ashley generally had good relations with the Indians, with the exception of the Arikaras. The evidence points to the fact that he tried to trade with the Indians, if given a chance, and relied upon them for information, horses and food. In fact, Ashley and his men in the other expeditions often camped with or near Indian villages. Ashley seemed most impressed with the Shoshone. He did have trouble with the Crows, though, when they stole some of his horses.

In 1824, Andrew Henry retired and Ashley was left without his field commander. Once again, William Ashley was forced by the circumstances to unexpectedly lead an expedition into the mountains. The goal was the reach the Three Forks area in the Rocky Mountains. After his experience the year before with the Arikaras up the Missouri and since they were surely sore after Pilcher's men burned their villages, Ashley decided to go overland this time. This expedition, which lasted from Nov. 3, 1824 through Oct. 4, 1825 is the one where Ashley made his place in history.

Ashley went up alongside the Missouri River, then up the Platte River and finally the South Platte River until it reached the Front Range of the Rockies. At this point, he headed in a northwesterly direction until he reached the wide and sandy pass that is now known as South Pass in southwestern Wyoming. This pass at 7,000 ft. remained snow free longer than the mountains on either side.

The Rocky Moutains presented a major detriment to western settlement. Much of Ashley's route from St. Louis and through South Pass later became the Oregon Trail which led to the California Trail. The tracks left by the wagon that Ashley had on the expedition were later used by the first wagon trains as they made their way across the country in a migration that saw hundreds of thousands of settlers move west. The Pony Express came through South Pass in 1860 as well as the Mormons that settled Utah earlier in 1847.

All of this trailblazing was being accomplished by the ambitous, but reluctant adventurer, William Ashley. Lewis and Clark had crossed the Rockies, but they made their crossing farther north near where Yellowstone is located and much too far north to be considered a viable route for the settlers.


William Earl Cook


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