A native of Virginia, Ashley moved West in 1803 to St. Genevieve in what was then called Louisiana and would later become Missouri. In 1808, he moved to St. Louis, where he earned a small fortune manufacturing gunpowder from a lode of saltpeter mined in a cave near the headwaters of Missouri’s Current River. Serving in the Missouri Militia during the War of 1812, he was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General.
In 1822 Ashley and business partner Andrew Henry, a bullet maker whom he met through his gunpowder business, decided to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. To prepare for their adventure, they posted advertisements in St. Louis newspapers seeking one hundred “enterprising young men… to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years.”
The men who responded became known as “Ashley’s Hundred.” For the next three years, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company made several large-scale fur-trapping expeditions in the west. Ashley’s idea was for trappers, Indians, and traders to meet annually in a predetermined location to exchange furs, goods, and money. The first mountain man’s rendezvous occurred on Henry’s Fork of the Green River in Wyoming in 1825.
Ashley’s innovations in the fur trade earned him recognition and money and helped to open the western part of the continent to American expansion. In 1826, he sold the trading company to Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and David Jackson and moved on to politics, becoming a U.S. Representative. When Missouri was admitted to the Union, Ashley was elected its first Lieutenant Governor.
Ashley died of pneumonia in 1838 and was interred atop an Indian burial mound in Cooper County, Missouri.