By 1822 William Ashley had made quite a successful life for himself. He had earned a sizeable sum of money mining saltpeter from a cave in Missouri for the manufacture of gunpowder. During the war of 1812 he had earned the rank of Brigadier General in the Missouri state militia. In 1820 he was even named Lieutenant Governor of his adopted state. Yet Ashley had greater ambitions, which soon became evident in a famous advertisement he and partner Andrew Henry ran in St. Louis newspapers.
They sought “enterprising young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source” for fur trapping of up to three years, thus the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was born in 1822. The young men who responded to the advertisement are a veritable who’s who of frontier history. Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Jim Beckwourth, William Sublette, the list goes on, to the point where they are known as “Ashley’s Hundred.”
All of these men had at least two things in common: a thirst for adventure and they would be led by Ashley. In effect, Ashley and Henry’s advertisement would lead to the first explorations of Bighorn Canyon country.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company would be competing head to head with the Missouri Fur Company. It would need to make incursions into new territory, in search of rich beaver trapping areas. The first expedition in Bighorn Canyon country took place in 1823 when the company sent couriers across the Bad Pass Trail taking messages to the Wind River region of Wyoming.
These messages made trappers aware that there would be a rendezvous on the Yellowstone with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company supplying trade goods. While this did meet with some success, Ashley had a visionary idea for the coming years that would dramatically change the way fur trading was conducted. Instead of having the trappers come to their posts, the Ashley-Henry partnership would take trade goods to a predetermined meeting place where trappers could bring their furs to trade in return for variety of goods. Thus was born the Rendezvous.
Perfecting The Rendezvous
In 1824 following a nightmarish expedition -characterized by hardship, hostile activity and low profits - Ashley's founding partner, Andrew Henry, quit the fur trade. Ashley took to the field on a historic trip that forever changed the fur trade.
Ashley and his men set out on the expedition in the fall of 1824. They would cover parts of present day Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. Nine months later, in early July of 1825, a highly successful rendezvous was held on the Henry’s Fork of Green River in what is today western Wyoming. From this rendezvous, Ashley and his men returned via the Bad Pass Trail. The Bad Pass was a detour across the rugged land west of Bighorn Canyon. Ashley would dare not chance having his rich packs of beaver furs lost in the unpredictable waters of the Bighorn.
One member of this inaugural expedition did chance the rapids though. Jim Bridger, mountain man par excellence, built a boat out of driftwood and managed to navigate the Bighorn, making the first recorded passage through the canyon. By August 7th, Ashley’s party arrived just below the mouth of the canyon - the end of the Bad Pass Trail - at Grapevine Creek. Here they constructed bullboats over the next 5 days, floating the Bighorn. Part of the company, led by William Sublette was sent back over the Bad Pass Trail to continue trapping around the Green River area.
Value And Efficiency
The river run back was uneventful for Ashley and the other members of his company. On October 4, 1825 they arrived in St. Louis with 100 packs of beaver pelts valued at $50,000. The significance and success of Ashley’s trip was long lasting.
The rendezvous system brought trade goods and supplies to the mountain men at a central, predetermined point. This would occur at the height of the summer, when beavers had left the streams. The trade goods would now be brought out on an overland route, thus the fur trade was no longer tied to water routes. Ashley’s company would worry about navigating the waterways back to St. Louis, all the trappers had to do was show up at a fixed place. Furs would now be trapped by small groups who had a vested interest in the rendezvous system.
They could stay out in the field longer, while the rendezvous became their once a year lifeline. The rendezvous became more then just a trading place, it turned into a weeks long festival whereby the trappers would eat, drink, play games, and tell stories. These meetings became a way of life.
Changes In Style
Ashley's involvement with the fur trade was short lived, though his system’s legacy lived on for over a decade. Though he had innovated the rendezvous system, Ashley sold out in 1826. From then on, he turned his attention to politics. Three times he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1830’s. In 1836, he turned away from national politics and attempted to run for Governor of Missouri. He would lose badly, ironically because his pro-business stance happened to be out of vogue at the moment.
In Ashley’s absence, the rendezvous continued to grow. It peaked in the early 1830’s. By the time Ashley passed away in 1838 beaver resources were depleted and a change in style away from beaver fur hats led to the end of the rendezvous. Nonetheless, William Ashley’s innovative business sense had changed the West forever. Now previously remote regions such as Bighorn Canyon were becoming known.