William Henry Ashley

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For other people named William Ashley, see William Ashley (disambiguation).

William Henry Ashley (b. circa 1778 – d. March 26, 1838) was an American pioneering fur trader, entrepreneur, and politician.

Early ventures[edit]

Though a native of Virginia, Ashley had already moved to Ste. Genevieve in what was then called Louisiana, when it was purchased by the United States from France in 1803. That land, later known as Missouri, became Ashley's home for most of his adult life. 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 did some real estate speculation and earned a small fortune manufacturing gunpowder from a lode of saltpeter mined in a cave near the headwaters of Missouri's Current river. When Missouri was admitted to the Union Ashley was elected its first Lieutenant Governor, serving from 1820 to 1824 under Governor Alexander McNair. He ran for governor of Missouri in the August 1824 election, but was defeated.

Entry into the fur trade[edit]

Further information: North American fur trade

In 1822[citation needed] Ashley and business partner Andrew Henry—a bullet maker whom he met through his gunpowder business—posted famous advertisements in St. Louis newspapers seeking one hundred "enterprising young men . . . to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years." The men who responded to this call became known as "Ashley's Hundred." Between 1822 and 1825, Ashley and Henry's Rocky Mountain Fur Company, did several large scale fur trapping expeditions in the mountain west. Ashley's men are officially credited with the American discovery of South Pass in the winter of 1824. Ashley devised the rendezvous system in which trappers, Indians and traders would meet annually in a predetermined location to exchange furs, goods and money. His innovations in the fur trade earned Ashley a great deal of money and recognition, and helped open the western part of the continent to American expansion.

In 1825, he led an expedition into the Salt Lake Valley. South of the Great Salt Lake, he discovered Utah Lake, which he named Lake Ashley.[dubious ][1] He established Fort Ashley on the banks to trade with the Indians. Over the next three years, the fort "collected over one-hundred-and-eighty thousand dollars' worth of furs".[dubious ][2] In late 1824 he explored present-day northern Colorado, ascending the South Platte River to the base of the Front Range, then ascending the Cache la Poudre River to the Laramie Plains and onward to the Green River.

On June 2, 1823, General Ashley was beaten by Indians with weapons he had sold them and lost eighteen of his men. Ashley reported twelve men killed and eleven wounded, of whom two died. (Consult "Notes on General Ashley, the Overland Trail and South Pass," by Donald McKay Frost, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, October, 1944.)[3]

Political career[edit]

In 1826 William H. Ashley sold the fur trading company to Jedediah Smith and some of his other men, and devoted his energy to politics. As a member of the Jacksonian Party, he won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1831, 1832, and 1834. In 1836 he declined to run for a fourth term in Congress, and instead ran for Governor of Missouri, losing badly. Many attribute his defeat to his increasingly pro-business stance in Congress, which alienated the rural Jacksonians. After the loss, he went back to making money on real estate, but his health declined rapidly and he died of pneumonia at the age of 54. William H. Ashley is buried atop an American Indian burial mound in Cooper County, Missouri, overlooking the Missouri River.

William H. Ashley is the namesake of the small community of Ashley, Missouri.[4] Also Ashley Falls[5] and Ashley Creek[6] in northeast Utah, and the Ashley National Forest.[7]


  1. ^ Whitney, Orson Ferguson (1892). History of Utah. G. Q. Cannon. p. 293. 
  2. ^ Victor, Francis Fuller (1877). Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains and a Life on the Frontier. R.W. Bliss. p. 33. 
  3. ^ "Notes on General Ashley, the Overland Trail, and South Pass" Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 54(2): 161-312. 1944
  4. ^ Eaton, David Wolfe (1917). How Missouri Counties, Towns and Streams Were Named. The State Historical Society of Missouri. p. 341. 
  5. ^ http://www.flaminggorgecountry.com/media/uploads/files/The-Dreaded-Ashley-Falls.pdf
  6. ^ http://www.onlineutah.com/ashley_creek.shtml
  7. ^ http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5276871.pdf#page=2
  • Morgan, Dale., The West of William H. Ashley, (Denver, 1964) ISBN

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Position established
Lieutenant Governor of Missouri
Succeeded by
Benjamin Harrison Reeves
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Spencer D. Pettis
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Missouri's at-large congressional district

Succeeded by
John Miller