William Ashley was born in Virgina. The date of his birth is uncertain as is when he relocated to Missouri. Based on statements Ashley himself made, he probably was born in 1782 and moved to Missouri in 1802. He most certainly was a resident by 1805 when he is documented as witnessing the marriage of Andrew Henry, who would at various times would be Ashley’s friend, associate and partner in numerous different business ventures.
Ashley’s earliest venture, from approximately 1808 till 1811 was to bring supplies and goods from New York to St Genevieve, Missouri, first by pack horse, and then later by steamship. Probably during this period Ashley married Mary Able. Mary Able’s father was quite well to do and was a holder of a large Spanish Land Grant. Through this marriage Ashley aquired some land claims and as a result became involved in land speculation.
Probably about 1811 Ashley had moved to Potosi where he was involved in mining ventures in which he partnered with Andrew Henry, both for lead and for saltpetre. Salt petre is a critical component of gunpowder manufacturing which lead Ashley into the business of gunpowder manufacturing with which he was involved until as late as 1819. Over these years there were several major explosions with severe damage and loss of life and this may have lead Ashley to abandon this venture.
Ashley was active in the Missouri Territorial Millitia shortly after relocating and during the War of 1812 advanced to Lieutenant Colonel of a regiment with Andrew Henry as his Major. In 1821 he reached the rank of Brigadier General of the militia, thus aquiring the title of “General” by which he was subsequently known.
In 1819 Ashley moved to St. Louis, where he extended his real estate operations. He also became active in politics at this time and was elected Lieutenant Governor for the new state of Missouri in 1820. Ashley’s wife died in November 1821, and he made an unsuccessful run for Governor in 1824. It was in the early 1820’s that Ashley entered the fur trade with Andrew Henry, who had extensive previous experience with Manuel Lisa, as a partner. On February 13, 1822 he ran his famous advertisement for one hundred enterprising young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source and be employed for one to three years. The men who responded in 1822 and for the expedition of 1823 would eventually become a who’s who of American Mountain Men, including such greats as Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Mike Fink, David Jackson, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Clyman, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, and Moses “Black” Harris.
The exploits and adventures of these men were to become legendary.