#Lookback: The Men of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: William H. Ashely

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

A “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous” is fur trapper jargon used to describe an annual gathering at a specific location held by a fur trading company. At this gathering, mountain men, Native Americans, and other travelers would eat, drink, and socialize together while trading furs and purchasing needed supplies. The Rocky Mountain Rendezvous was only held in what are now the states of Utah and Wyoming from 1825 to 1940. There were three Rocky Mountain Rendezvous held in Fremont County, Wyoming. One Rendezvous was held near Lander and two were held near Riverton. This article series will take an in-depth investigation into the lives of some of the main characters involved in the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous held in Fremont County.

The first life to be explored will be William H. Ashley. Although William H. Ashley never attended any of the Rendezvous in Fremont County, he played an essential role in the founding of the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in 1825, as co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was one of the main suppliers at the Rendezvous from 1825-1834. 

William H. Ashley was born in Powhatan County, Virginia. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but the year of his birth can be estimated as 1778. As a young man, Ashley moved from Virginia to St. Genevieve, Missouri, which was a part of the Louisiana Purchase made by the United States, in approximately 1803. (1) The first record of William H. Ashley’s presence is when he served as a witness to the marriage of Andrew Henry, who later became his business partner, in 1805. (2) By 1808, William H. Ashley moved to St. Louis, Missouri. (1)

From 1808 to approximately 1811, Ashley was involved in many different business ventures. One business venture was the trading of supplies in St. Genevieve that had been brought from New York via pack horses or from New Orleans via ship. These business ventures were not financially successful for the young William H. Ashley. Also, during this period, Ashley met and married Mary Able, the daughter of Ezekiel Able. Ezeikiel Able was the owner of a large Spanish land grant. Through his marriage to Mary, Ashley was able to acquire part of this land grant. This acquisition led Ashley to add land speculation to his business ventures. (2) Land speculation is the purchasing of large pieces of land with the expectation that the value of the land would increase over time. After the land price had increased, the land speculator would sell the land for a profit.

In 1811, William H. Ashley entered the mining business. He owned a lead mine and a saltpetre mine located in Potosi, Missouri, along with his business partners Andrew Henry and Lionel Browne. Over time, mining saltpetre to the business partners starting a gunpowder manufacturing operation. (2) A saltpetre mine usually produces both potassium and sodium nitrate, which can be used to produce potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate was used in gunpowder as an oxidizer. This means that the decomposition of potassium nitrate, which only happened at high temperatures, added oxygen to the chemical reaction causing an explosion. The occurrence of explosions that resulted in a loss of life led Ashley to leave the gunpowder manufacturing business in 1819, the same year one of his business partners, Lionel Browne, was killed in a duel. (2,3) 

Throughout his time in Missouri, William H. Ashley was active in the Missouri Territory Militia. During the War of 1812, Ashley was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and served in the same unit as his business partner, 1st Major Andrew Henry. One campaign Ashley participated in was known as the Peoria Expedition. This campaign, led by General Howard, was a battle against a group of Native Americans that had reportedly organized raids on the settlers in Missouri. The campaign resulted in the destruction of the Native American camp near Peoria, Illinois.

After leaving the mining operation, William H. Ashley entered the political arena and began the process of organizing a fur trade business with his partner, Andrew Henry. The company was originally known as the William H. Ashley- Andrew Henry Fur Company, but would later be re-named as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In 1820, he was elected the lieutenant governor of the newly formed state of Missouri. The next year, Ashley was promoted from a Lieutenant Colonel to a Brigadier General in the Missouri Militia. Also, in 1821, on November 7th, Ashley’s wife, Mary, died.

On February 13th, 1822, William H. Ashley published a now-famous ad in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. The ad read:

To Enterprising Young Men. The subscriber wishes to engage One Hundred Men, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, three years. – For particulars, enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County of Washington, (who will ascend with and command the party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.

              -Wm. H. Ashley

The same advertisement was also published in the St. Louis Enquirer two weeks later. Many of the men hired through this advertisement became famous names in the fur trade industry, including some of the men who will be featured in this series. These men include Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, William Sublette, and Thomas Fitzpatrick. By April 1822, Andrew Henry and the men started on the journey up the Missouri River. William H. Ashley stayed in St. Louis to supply the expedition. One month after the expedition began, Ashley attempted to follow the crew but ended up overturning his boat and losing all his supplies. After the accident, he returned to St. Louis to obtain more supplies. By October, all the adventurers had reached the junction of the Missouri River and the Yellowstone River, which is where they began building a fort called Fort Henry. However, Ashley, returned to St. Louis to get more supplies leaving Henry and the crew of men to trap and trade furs at Fort Henry. (2)

In March of 1823, Ashley began the journey back to Fort Henry with supplies and seventy additional men. This expedition was led by James Clyman. Once he arrived at Fort Henry, Ashley found the fur trapping operation in poor financial health. So, William split the remaining men into teams in search of a better location to acquire beaver fur. After splitting up his men, Ashley returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1823. Later, Andrew Henry also returned to St. Louis after deciding to withdraw from the business partnership. Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick were the leaders of one team who were searching for a new location. They eventually found a location with plenty of beaver after traveling through South Pass to the Green River. The news of the new location reached Ashley in St. Louis in 1824, after he had completed an unsuccessful campaign for the Governor of Missouri.

On November 4th, 1824, Ashley left Missouri for the new location by the Green River. Ashley and his group did not arrive at the Green River until April 19th, 1925. Upon arrival, Ashley split the men into small groups and dispatched them in various directions to trap beaver. The plan was to “rendezvous” before the 10th of July at Henry’s Fork on the Green River. Ashley had returned to Henry’s Fork by July 1st, 1825. About 120 men gathered at Henry’s Fork for the first of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. At the first Rendezvous, Jedediah Smith was made a junior partner in Ashley’s fur company. By July 2nd, Ashley started back to St. Louis with 9,000 beaver pelts. 

He arrived in St. Louis in October and began equipping a party for his new partner, Smith, to lead back out West. During his time in St. Louis, Ashley got married to Eliza Christy on October 26th, 1825. By March 8th, 1826, Ashley started the journey west for the second Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. The second rendezvous was held near Cove, Utah, and lasted approximately two weeks. In attendance were 60 to 70 trappers and many Iroquois who had just left the service of the Hudson Bay Company. After two weeks, Ashley met with David Jackson and William Sublette near Bear River. At this meeting, Ashley sold his shares to the pair and agreed to continue supplying the trappers with goods from St. Louis. Once business was completed, Ashley returned overland to St. Louis with 123 packs of beaver pelts on pack horses.

Upon his return to St. Louis, William H. Ashley continued to supply Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and David Jackson with trade goods and provisions. On June 1st, 1830, after only five short years, his second wife, Eliza, died. Then, in August 1831, he re-entered the political arena after being elected to complete the term of Representative Spencer Pettis, who had died in a duel. He was re-elected in 1832, and again in 1834. In October 1832, he was married to Elizabeth Moss Wilcox. Originally, William H. Ashley was a Democrat but broke from the party over the issue of the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States. In 1836, Ashley ran for Governor of Missouri as a member of the Whig Party but lost the election to Lilburn W. Boggs. While running for Congress under the Whig ticket, William H. Ashley got pneumonia. On March 26th, 1838, he died of his illness and was buried on the farm of his father-in-law, Dr. James W. Moss. (2)

Although William H. Ashley’s time in the fur trade industry was short, it was very impactful. He was the innovator of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which continued to flourish even after he left the business in 1826.

Next up for the Fremont County Museums

April 7th, 6 pm at the Riverton Museum “Seed Starting with the Riverton Garden Club”

              Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

April 17th, 2-4 pm at the Riverton Museum “Seed Starting for Children”

              Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

April 22nd, 7 pm at the Dubois Museum “Swift Fox Ecology, Distribution and Trends” by Nichole Bjornlie WG&F Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

April 24th, 1-3 pm at the Pioneer Museum “Sheep Shearing Day”

              Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Joe Scheuerle Art Exhibit: “Native Americans of Wind River Country”, 9-5 Monday to Saturday at the Pioneer Museum Handle with Care: Art Moving

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum are seeing significantly decreased visitation this summer as a result of Covid-19. As a result, the self-generated revenue we rely so heavily on to make ends meet is not keeping pace. We are counting on private donations to continue to maintain successful and engaging museums during this time. We urge you to make a tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support. 

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