Sunday, July 8, 2012

How Did Ashley Street Get Its Name?

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. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this wonderful account!
-Virginia Reader

Anonymous said...

Did his system help lead to the decline of Fort Osage as a trading post? Or was that earlier?
-Virginia Reader

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hello, Va. Reader! I think that--like all things affecting human history--several factors must have accounted for the decline of Fort Osage. Good ol' Wikipedia suggests different factors for the fort's demise:

1. By the early 1820s, the Osage were relinquishing their lands in the far western part of today's Missouri, and as their landholdings contracted, Fort Scott (to the west, in Kans.) became the new Indian mission. Ft. Osage was no longer a mission as of 1822, as it no longer overlapped Indian land.

2. Ft. Osage did continue as a stop along the Santa Fe Trail and for other westering Americans and their trade items, but local settlers scavenged the old fort for lumber to build their houses and barns, essentially dismantling the fort by 1836.

You realize that Mo. gained statehood in 1821, which opened wide the gate for American settlers within its borders. Also, the Independence area, also in western Missouri, received an influx of Mormon settlers in the early 1830s, too.

I imagine Ashley's rendezvous system played at least an indirect role in the demise of Fort Osage, as it magnified the ongoing infiltration of whites to the west, the retreat of Indians across the region, the lessening of dependence on Indians for procurement of furs, and the overall westward relocation of the frontier border.

I hope this is a good response, for now--I'm not a historian--maybe Walter can help fill in the blanks and say something more appropriate. He's a specialist in Missouri's settlement patterns, you know!


Walter Schroeder said...

Julie has it basically correct. By 1822 Fort Osage was more a trading post for settlers than it was for collecting furs from native Americans. The fed gov was under pressure to get out of the trading business in favor of private traders. Walter

Walter Schroeder said...

By the way, Ashley County was organized in Missouri in 1843 in honor of William Ashley. But two years later, after Texas was annexed to the United States, the Ashley County was re-named Texas County, because so many men from that part of the state had emigrated to Texas as followers of Moses and Stephen Austin. WAS