William Henry Ashley (ca. 1778-1838), American businessman, fur trader and explorer, and politician, was a leading figure in the organization and operation of the Rocky Mountain fur trade during the 1820s.
William Ashley was born in Chesterfield County, Va. His date of birth has been given variously as 1778, 1782, and 1785; modern scholarship tends to accept the earliest date. From Virginia young Ashley migrated to Missouri. By 1805 he had settled in the St. Genevieve area, where he became a supplier for local merchants and businessmen. He married Mary Able, then turned to land speculation, operating a plantation near Cape Girardeau. By 1811 he and Andrew Henry had moved to Washington County, Mo., where Henry worked a lead mine and Ashley processed saltpeter and manufactured gunpowder.
During this time Ashley served as justice of the peace for the St. Genevieve district and as an officer in the territorial militia. During the War of 1812 he received several promotions, becoming a lieutenant colonel in 1814. Five years later he advanced to the rank of colonel and in 1822 became a brigadier general.
He arrived in St. Louis in 1819 and became active in real estate speculation, banking, and politics. In 1820 he was elected the first lieutenant governor of Missouri, and 4 years later he lost a close election for the governorship.
His political activity remained secondary; Ashley's major interest was the fur trade. In 1822, with his former associate Andrew Henry, he advertised for "enterprizing young men" to enter the trade—and from that time on, the American fur business depended upon hired trappers (rather than Native Americans) to obtain the bulk of the furs. Ashley's advertisement encouraged a number of the most famous of the trappers and mountain men to enter the trade. While working for Ashley, Jedediah Smith brought back news of South Pass; Ashley took wagons over it and later explored parts of the Colorado River Valley. In 1826 Ashley sold his interest in the trade and turned to the less risky business of supplying the trading companies.
In 1825 he married a second time, but Eliza Christy, his bride, lived only 5 years. In 1832 he married Elizabeth M. Wilcox. A slender, energetic man of medium height, Ashley had a narrow face with a prominent nose and jutting chin. His leadership abilities helped him remain in public life, and in 1831 he was elected to Congress to complete the term of Spencer Pettis, who had been killed in a duel.
Ashley claimed to support Andrew Jackson, but at the same time he favored the Second Bank of the United States. He was reelected to Congress in 1832 and 1834. At the close of his third term he ran a second time for the Missouri governorship but lost to Lilburn Boggs. Two years later, in 1838, he died of pneumonia.
There is no biography of Ashley, but Dale L. Morgan, ed., The West of William H. Ashley (1964), gives the most complete account of his life. See also Harrison C. Dale, ed., The Ashley-Smith Explorations and the Discovery of a Central Route to the Pacific, 1822-1829 (1918). Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), gives much collateral material. For a general account of the fur trade see Hiram M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West (3 vols., 1902; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1935).
Dale, Harrison Clifford, The explorations of William H. Ashley and Jedediah Smith, 1822-1829, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.