Ashley Street runs through the heart of Jefferson City’s Munichburg from Jackson Street west to Deeg Street. Central United Church of Christ is on Ashley at the corner of Washington Street. But how did the street get its name? Who has heard of a person by the name of Ashley?
Many famous Americans are commemorated with street names in Jefferson City. William Henry Ashley was one of them and is particularly important to Missourians for his contribution to the early development of the state.
Ashley was born about 1778 in Virginia and came to Missouri in 1802. He witnessed the change from a European colony to United States control. He made his first contribution by discovering an Ozark cave full of bat guano, which he recognized as potassium nitrate—saltpeter. Ashley processed the bat dung into gunpowder, a vital commodity on the frontier, especially when paired with the nearby lead mines for producing lead shot. Local gunpowder and shot—and an abundance of game—made the Missouri Ozarks a hunter’s paradise.
William Ashley had the right connections and was popular enough to be elected Missouri’s first lieutenant governor in 1820. As such he had a role in the selection of Jefferson City as the state capital. He was made a U.S. brigadier general in 1821. He was well-known and popular when Jefferson City was founded.
His real place in American history, however, came in the fur trade, which was then centered in St. Louis. He partnered with Andrew Henry to change the way furs were collected in the West and brought to St. Louis. Previously, Indians brought pelts to trading posts along western rivers, where agents of St. Louis fur merchants traded for them.
But Ashley and Henry did not use fortlike trading posts; they replaced the Indians and French traders with American trappers who acted as independent businessmen. Once a year, these trappers would bring their collected beaver pelts to a “rendezvous” in the Rocky Mountains. At the rendezvous Ashley and Henry’s agents bought the furs from the trappers, who came to be called “mountain men.” Among them were such legendary Westerners as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jim Beckwourth, Hugh Glass, and Jedediah Smith.
Ashley and Henry’s enterprise was named the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Their system of using American men instead of Indians and French was hugely successful and greatly contributed to the rise of St. Louis in the 1820s and 1830s. And the mountain men explored the mountains and valleys of the West and populated it with the first Americans.
Ashley, for example, is remembered by the National Park Service at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, in Montana and Wyoming, where mountain men and the rendezvous system played a prominent historical role.
Henry served as point man in the Rocky Mountains, while Ashley was the astute businessman in St. Louis.
William Ashley’s popularity in Missouri never waned. He served in Congress in 1831–1837 and ran for governor in 1836. Then he moved to Cooper County, where he died in 1838.
He was buried, according to his dying wishes, in an Indian mound atop a bluff where the Lamine River empties into the Missouri, a few miles west of Boonville. The site is impressive. From that bluff you can look up and down the Missouri River for many miles and imagine boatloads of furs returning downriver to St. Louis. William Ashley had no children.
It is highly fitting that Jefferson City honors the great Missourian William Ashley with a street name. Although today no one knows who Ashley was, it is certain that he was a household name to the early residents of Jefferson City.
Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.