William Ashley was born in Chesterfield County, Virginia, in about 1778. As a young man he moved to Missouri where he became a trader at St. Genevieve. He then joined the army and by 1812 had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Ashley moved to St Louis and in 1819 was elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1820. Ashley and Andrew Henry decided to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. On 13th February, 1822, they placed an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Adviser where he called for 100 enterprising men to "ascend the river Missouri" to take part in the fur collecting business. Those who agreed to join the party included James Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, William Sublette, Jim Beckwourth, David Jackson, Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, James Clyman and Edward Rose.
Ashley's company was the first to depend primarily upon trapping the beaver rather than buying them from Native Americans. Ashley did not pay the trappers a fixed wage. Instead, in return for transporting them to the Rocky Mountains, he took a share in the furs they obtained.
On 30th May, 1823, Ashley and his party of 70 men were attacked by 600 Arikaras. Twelve of Ashley's men were killed and the rest were forced to retreat. Jedediah Smith volunteered to contact Andrew Henry and bring back reinforcements. A message was sent back to St Louis and Colonel Henry Leavenworth of the U.S. Sixth Infantry and later 200 soldiers and 700 Sioux allies attacked the Arikara villages.
In 1825 Ashley put Jedediah Smith in charge of the trappers and returned to St Louis. The following year he sold his business to Smith and two other mountain men.
Ashley now entered politics and was elected to the House of Representatives but was twice defeated for the post of governor.
William Ashley died of pneumonia on 26th March, 1838.
(1) William Ashley, letter to General Henry Atkinson (1st December, 1825)
After an unremitting and severe labour of two days, we returned to our old encampment with the loss of some of my horses, and my men excessively fatigued. We found the snow to be from three to five feet in depth and so firmly settled as to render our passage through it wholly impracticable. This mountain is timbered with a beautiful growth of white pine and from every appearance is a delightful country to travel over in the summer season. After remaining one day longer at the camp to rest my men and horses, I left it a second time and travelled northwardly along the base of the mountains. As I thus advanced, I was delighted with the variegated scenery presented by the valleys and mountains, which were enlivened by innumerable herds of buffalo antelope, and mountain sheep grazing on them, and what added no small degree of interest to the whole scene, were the many small streams issuing from the mountains, bordered with a thin growth of small willows and richly stocked with beaver. As my men could profitably employ themselves on these streams, I moved slowly along, averaging not more than five or six miles per day and sometimes remained two days at the same encampment.
(2) William Ashley, diary entry (8th May, 1825)
Jedediah Smith, a very intelligent and confidential young man, who had charge of a small detachment, stated that he had, in the fall of 1824, crossed from the headwaters of the Rio Colorado to Lewis fork of the Columbia and down the same about one hundred miles, thence northwardly to Clark's fork of the Columbia, where he found a trading establishment of the Hudson Bay company, where he remained for some weeks. Mr. Smith ascertained from the gentleman who had charge of that establishment, that the Hudson Bay company had then in their employment, trading with the Indians and trapping beaver on both sides of the Rocky mountains, about 80 men, 60 of whom were generally employed as trappers and confined their operations to that district called the Snake country, which Mr. Smith understood as being confined to the district claimed by the Shoshone Indians. It appeared from the account, that they had taken in the last four years within that district eighty thousand beaver, equal to one hundred and sixty thousand pounds of furs.
You can form some idea of the quantity of beaver that country once possessed, when I tell you that some of our hunters had taken upwards of one hundred in the last spring hunt out of streams which had been trapped, as I am informed, every season for the last four years.
(3) William Ashley, diary entry (28th May, 1825)
Some of the Indians arrived last evening with their families others early this morning. I invited their chiefs& warriors to smoke informed them that I wanted to purchase 7 horses & showed them the goods that I would give for them. They expressed satisfaction at the liberal offer made them, but such is the use that they make of their horses and the value they set on them that I with difficulty purchased two - they expressed great friendship for the Americans & their conduct verify their professions, I was much surprised at the appearance of these people I expected to find them a poor lifeless set of beings, destitute of the means or disposition to defend themselves; alarmed at the sight of a white man but to the contrary, They met me with great familiarity and ease of manner were clothed in mountain sheep skin & buffalo robes superior to any band of Indians in my knowledge west of Council Bluffs.
(4) William Ashley, diary entry (2nd July, 1825)
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 Indians first by a party of Blackfeet about 60 in number. They made their appearance at the break of day, yelling in the most hideous manner and using every means in their power to alarm our horses, although closely hobbled, broke by the guard and ran off. A part of the Indians being mounted, they succeeded in getting all the horses except two, and wounded one man. An attempt was also made to take our camp, but in that they failed. The following night, I sent an express to secure horses from the party of our men who had taken a direct route. In two days thereafter, I received the desired aid and again proceeded on my way, made about ten miles, and encamped upon an eligible situation. That night, about 12 o'clock, we were again attacked by a war party of Crow Indians, which resulted in the loss of one of the Indians killed and another shot through the body, 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 7th day of August.
On my passage thither, I discovered nothing remarkable in the features of the country. It affords generally a smooth way to travel over. The only very rugged part of the route is in crossing the Big Horn mountain, which is about 30 miles wide. I had the Big Horn river explored from Wind River mountain to my place of embarkation. There is little or no difficulty in the navigation of that river from its mouth to Wind River mountain. It may be ascended that far at a tolerable stage of water with a boat drawing three feet water. The Yellowstone river is a beautiful river to navigate. It has rapids extending from above Powder river about fifty miles but I found about four feet water over the most.