Missouri Lieutenant Governor William Ashley places an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advisor seeking 100 “enterprising young men” to engage in fur trading on the Upper Missouri.
A Virginia native, Ashley had moved to Missouri just after President Thomas Jefferson concluded the Louisiana Purchase from France, which made the region American territory. Young and eager to make a name for himself, he entered into a partnership with Andrew Henry to begin manufacturing gunpowder and lead, two commodities that were in short supply in the new nation. During the War of 1812, Ashley’s business prospered, and he also joined the Missouri militia, where he eventually earned the rank of general. When Missouri became a state in 1822, he used his business and military fame to win election as lieutenant governor.
Casting about for opportunities to enrich both Missouri and his own pocketbook, Ashley realized that St. Louis was ideally situated to exploit the fur trade on the upper Missouri River. Ashley recruited his old friend Henry as a partner, and the two men placed their famous advertisement asking for robust, adventurous young men to come west to join a fur trapping expedition up the Missouri. Among the scores who responded and came to St. Louis were such future legendary mountain men as Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger, as well as the famous river man Mike Fink. In time, these men and dozens of others would uncover many of the geographic mysteries of the Far West.
In 1822, Ashley and a small band of his fur trappers built a trading post on the Yellowstone River of Montana in order to expand outward from the Missouri River. Arikara Indians, though, were deeply hostile to Ashley’s attempts to undercut their long-standing position as middlemen in the fur trade. Arikara attacks eventually forced the men to abandon the Yellowstone post. Out of desperation, Ashley hit on a new strategy: instead of building central permanent forts along the major rivers, he decided to send his trappers overland in small groups traveling by horseback. By avoiding the river arteries, the trappers could both escape detection by hostile Indians and develop untapped new fur regions.
Almost by accident, Ashley invented the famous “rendezvous” system that revolutionized the American fur trade. In order for the trappers to obtain necessary supplies and deliver their furs, Ashley told the trappers to meet with him in a large meadow near the Henry’s Fork of Wyoming’s Green River in the early summer of 1825. This first fur trapper rendezvous proved a huge success. Ashley took home a tidy profit for his efforts, while the fur trappers not only had an opportunity to trade for supplies, but a chance to enjoy a few weeks of often drunken socializing.
After organizing a second highly profitable rendezvous in 1826, Ashley decided to sell out. His rendezvous system, though, continued to be used by others, and eventually became the foundation for the powerful Rocky Mountain Fur Company. With plenty of money in the bank, Ashley was able to return to his first love, politics. He won election to Congress three times and once to the Senate, where he helped further the interests of the western land that had made him rich.