By Lotte Govaerts
The 2016 Academy Awards ceremony is now behind us. It took place this past Sunday, February 28, and The Revenant won three awards: Best cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), best director (Alejandro Iñárritu), and best actor in a leading role (Leonardo DiCaprio). This is a good time to share the next blog post in our series on the real stories behind The Revenant. In this installment we explore the history of the Ashley-Henry expedition, which the real Hugh Glass participated in.
The events The Revenant is based on took place in the second year of William H. Ashley’s foray in the fur trade business. The real history of this business venture is quite interesting. These early years of the venture are often referred to as the “Ashley-Henry expedition”, or “Ashley’s Hundred”. The company would later morph into the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (see Chittenden 1902, p. 247-308; Berry 1966; Dolin 2010, p. 223-255).
William Henry Ashley (1780-1838) was an entrepreneur in the Louisiana Territory in the early days of its existence as a United States territory. He made some money in real estate and manufacturing, and during the war of 1812 joined the Missouri Militia where he earned the rank of Brigadier General. He also had an interest in politics and was elected the first lieutenant governor of the newly admitted state of Missouri in 1820.
Not all of Ashley’s ventures were profitable, and he was in financial trouble by the early 1820s. To fund his further political ambitions, Ashley decided to try his luck in the fur trade business, which was quite lucrative at the time. Beaver hats were the height of fashion in Europe, driving massive demand for furs. In early 1822, Ashley joined forces with a previous business partner, Andrew Henry (~1775-1832). Henry already had experience in the fur trade, as one of the founders of the Missouri Fur Company, along with Manuel Lisa, Jean Pierre Chouteau, William Clark and others in 1809. Henry had also joined the Missouri Militia, and earned the rank of Major (the character in The Revenant played by Domnhall Gleeson is Captain Andrew Henry).
The fur trade in the Upper Missouri River basin was dominated by the Missouri Fur Company at the time (a company that had already dissolved and reorganized a few times). Rather than directly compete with the Missouri Fur Company, Ashley decided to employ different methods. The fur trade establishments on the upper Missouri did business by trading with local (and not so local) tribes. They employed a few hunters/trappers directly, but most of their furs and skins were obtained through the trade. Ashley instead decided to send men out to obtain furs directly by hunting and trapping. The men would be paid in furs, keeping half of what they collected as payment.
William Ashley famously advertised his venture in St. Louis newspapers in the late winter/early spring of 1822: “To enterprising young men. The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred young men to ascend the Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years. For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the lead mines in the county of Washington, who will ascend with, and command, the party; or of the subscriber near St. Louis.”
According the Chittenden (1902, p. 262), the first recorded licenses for trade on the upper Missouri obtained by Ashley and Henry were dated April 11, 1822. Having received ample response to their advertisement, mainly from young men, the expedition commanded by Henry set out from St. Louis in two keelboats full of supplies and merchandise, on April 15, 1822. The plan was to ascend up the Missouri to the headwaters, a region believed to be extremely rich in fur-bearing animals. They intended to stay there for three years, trapping along the streams of the region, and possibly exploring as far as the mouth of the Columbia River (Chittenden 1902, p. 263).
During the first two years of the expedition Ashley and his men encountered some setbacks and the venture was not particularly profitable. Details can be found in the writings of Ashley himself, and those of Jedediah Smith, member of the company (Dale 1991). These writings formed the basis for Chittenden’s summary of events during those first two years in his 1902 volume on the fur trade (1902, p. 247-281):
The first setback was encountered early in the expedition, when one of the party’s two keelboats was lost after getting snagged (a very common problem on the Upper Missouri). The crew was saved, but some $10,000 worth of property was lost. The next setback was encountered in August. The expedition had acquired horses by this point, and a land party walked along the river with said horses, while the rest of the party traveled by boat. All of the horses were stolen by a group of Assiniboine. The loss of the horses prevented the expedition from carrying out their plan of traveling all the way up the Missouri that same summer, and establishing a fort near the headwaters. Instead, they set up a fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone, where they spent the winter hunting and trapping. Henry managed to purchase more horses that winter, and set out for Blackfoot Country early the next spring. The details of that part of the expedition are sketchy, other than that Henry’s party was attacked by a group of Blackfeet, and subsequently driven out of their area. He returned to mouth of the Yellowstone in June 1823.
Back in St. Louis meanwhile, Ashley had put out more ads in local papers, recruiting another one hundred or so men for his venture. He accompanied this part of the expedition himself and left St. Louis with another two keelboats on March 10. He progressed up the river without incident, until he reached the Arikara (Sahnish) villages on May 30th.
Here he meant to purchase horses, so that a portion of the men could proceed to the Yellowstone overland, while the rest of the men would continue up the river. There had been no problems when Henry passed through with the first group the year before, but still Ashley was somewhat cautious approaching the village, due to recent conflict between the tribe and fur traders.1
Ashley anchored his keelboats well out in the water, and went ashore with two men, where he met with some of the chiefs and expressed a desire to trade. Ashley proposed to meet them on the sand beach, where details of the trade could be arranged. The chiefs agreed, and the meeting took place as planned. Ashley gave out presents, and a price for the horses was agreed upon. Everything seemed to be going well. On June 1st, preparations were completed, and Ashley intended to set out the next morning. Another meeting with a chief occurred that evening. Still everything seemed to go well, although Ashley’s translator warned him there might be trouble brewing. Ashley apparently ignored the warning and left the boats moored near the villages for the night, while the land party camped on the beach.
Ashley apparently was awakened very early in the morning of July 2, with the information that one of his men had been killed, and an attack on his party was imminent. Indeed, at dawn, Arikara warriors from the villages opened fire from an extremely well-defended position. They mainly fired at the land party on the beach, who took heavy casualties. Ashley, on one of the keelboats, attempted to get the boats to shore to take on the men, but the boatmen refused to go near the shore. Eventually some men were picked up by skiffs, and others attempted to swim. Several drowned. The keelboats were cut loose and drifted downstream to a location out of reach of the villages, where the crews went ashore. Ashley made a list of those wounded in the fight. Hugh Glass was among them (Dale 1991, p. 71)2. These events are likely the basis for the battle scene early in The Revenant, although that battle did not appear to be taking place near the villages.
Ashley meant to make another attempt to pass the villages, but the majority of his men refused to do so until they received some reinforcements. Thus, Ashley descended the river another twenty-five miles, and dug in there, with some 30 men who agreed to stay on. He transferred most of his supplies to one of the keelboats, and sent the other one back downstream with the wounded, and those men who did not want to stay. Ashley sent word to Major O’Fallon, the Indian Agent, and to Colonel Leavenworth, commanding officer at Fort Atkinson, to ask for government assistance.
Ashley also sent word to Henry, who descended the river with most of the men from their fort at the Yellowstone and joined Ashley near the mouth of the Cheyenne in early July (Henry’s party traveled down the river and passed the Grand River villages without incident). He brought the furs collected while up at the Yellowstone, and sent those downriver to St. Louis.
Ashley and Henry were uncertain whether help was coming, and decided to go further down the river and try to acquire horses there. They were successful in this endeavor, and went on to a nearby fur trade post, where they learned that troops were indeed coming to confront the Arikara.
After the conclusion of the Leavenworth campaign (as described in the previous blog post), Ashley sent Henry and some 80 men overland to the Yellowstone River. It was on this leg of the journey that Hugh Glass had his unfortunate encounter with a grizzly bear3 . Henry experienced a few more setbacks on that journey, including the discovery, upon his return to the Yellowstone fort that many of the horses left there had been stolen by groups of Blackfeet and/or Assiniboine. Several more were stolen after his return to the post, and he decided to abandon that location and move up the Yellowstone.
Henry managed to purchase more horses from a group of Crow near the Powder River, and divided up his men into a group that was sent to the southwest, and a group that he accompanied to the mouth of the Bighorn River, where he erected a post. The former party found themselves in the Green River Valley that autumn, which they discovered to be extremely rich in fur-bearing animals.
Around this time, Andrew Henry left the Ashley venture. Things weren’t going extremely well for William Ashley during this period. His credit was depleted, and he had lost his bid for Governor of Missouri. However, his luck would soon turn. The later history of the Ashley venture is possibly even more well-known than its early history (See Dolin 2010 p. 225-254). When Ashley received the news about the furs from the Green River Valley, which reached him in the summer of 1824, he decided to give up on the Missouri River altogether, and focus his business on the Rocky Mountains exclusively.
Later that year, Ashley led a supply train and 25 men from Fort Atkinson to the Green River Valley, where they arrived in April 1825. He split his men into small groups to do their trapping, and told them to rendezvous in July at a yet-to-be-determined location along the Green River, which they would find based on the markers he would leave for them. The rendezvous took place as planned on July 1st, and included approximately 120 trappers (including some who had defected from the Hudson’s Bay Company). Ashley resupplied the men and collected their furs. He headed back on July 2nd with a small group of men, leaving most of the men behind in the mountains to continue trapping. The venture was very successful and Ashley led another supply train into the mountains the next summer, for a second rendezvous, which was even more profitable.
Ashley not only got out of debt, but became wealthy. He sold his interest in the company to three of his trappers: Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. He continued to supply trade goods to his former company, but mostly focused his attention on his career in politics. He won a congress seat in 1831, which he held for two additional terms.
Although Ashley’s actual involvement in the fur trade was brief, his name is well-known in fur trade history, because of the way his business model revolutionized the fur trade. He introduced the rendezvous system that became a fixture of the Rocky Mountain fur trade until 1840. Each year, hundreds gathered at these rendezvous, including the trappers and fur company employees, as well as native people looking to trade. These gatherings lasted several days or weeks. The men who stayed in the mountains year round became known as “mountain men”, who captured the nation’s imagination and became well-known figures in the mythology of the American West, but that is a topic for another time.
Ultimately Smith, Jackson, and Sublette sold Ashley’s company to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Baptiste Gervais in 1830. These men continued the business under the name “Rocky Mountain Fur Company”. However, the fur trade was in decline in the 1830s. Extreme competition and overhunting lead to depletion of beaver populations. This coincided with a change in fashion in Europe, where silk hats were replacing the beaver fur models. The five partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company sold their interests in 1834, and the company was absorbed by the American Fur Company.
Hunting and trapping for furs was the impetus that brought Hugh Glass and the rest of the Ashley hundred into the Missouri River Basin, setting the stage for the events depicted in the Revenant. Although the fur trade was not central to the movie’s main storyline, it was a huge part of the US economy at the time and it paved the way for the westward expansion of the nation. In the next blog installment we will discuss fort Kiowa, the fur trade outpost shown in the film. Such forts were critical to the colonial expansion of the US.
1. The reasons for the early tensions between the Arikara (Sahnish) people on one side, and US fur traders and US government on the other are complex. Relations between the two groups were fine at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-1806. There had been no notable problems between the tribe and fur traders who operated in the region before the Louisiana Purchase. The Arikara War of 1823 (the first armed conflict between Native peoples and the US government west of the Mississippi) took place several decades before US settlers arrived in large numbers, taking enormous amounts of land from them. Historians and archaeologists have posited that the increased presence of fur trade establishments along the upper Missouri threatened the Arikara’s (Sahnish) intermediary position in the northern plains trade, and thus the basis for the tribe’s economy. This would be especially true for Ashley’s fur trade business model. In the years and months before the Henry party visited, there had also been hostilities between the tribe and some of the local fur traders. The tribe appears to have been angry that the traders were doing business with the Lakota Sioux, their sworn enemies. Just two months earlier, a conflict had led to the death of a Chief’s son, which created more hostile feelings. Another factor might be the fact that Lewis and Clark persuaded a chief, Ankedoucharo to visit Washington when they passed through in 1804. Ankedoucharo toured the capital and other eastern cities, but died a year into the trip. His death, and the uncertainty surrounding his fate (the tribe didn’t learn of his death until much later) aroused suspicion in at least some of the Arikara (Sahnish). The United States government sent Ensign Nathaniel Pryor to deliver the late chief’s possessions (most notably a medal that had been presented to him) to his son. Ensign Pryor traveled with an escort of fourteen soldiers, and a company of fur traders. His visit to the Grand River villages ended in a battle. For more in-depth exploration of the Arikara War and its causes, see Meyer 1977; Nester 2001; Nichols 1984, 2013)↩
2. Ashley’s complete list included both dead and wounded, although he made such a list in two different letters, and there are some differences between the two (Dale 1991, p. 73). He counts 12 dead during the attack, and one of the wounded “since deceased”. Possibly others died of their wounds later, as some other estimates list 14 or 15 deaths (see Meyer 1977, p. 54).↩
3. Approximately five days into the overland journey, Hugh Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear while hunting ahead of the rest of the party. He was gravely injured in this attack. Henry left two men to care for Glass until he either recovered or died, while he himself continued on his way with the rest of the party. Tired of waiting, and assuming Glass was about to die, the two men (one of them named John Fitzgerald, the other an unnamed youth, although in the many retellings of the story he became identified as Jim Bridger) took all his possessions, including his rifle, and left him to die. Glass eventually recovered and made his way to Fort Kiowa, and from there to other places, tracking down the men who had left him, especially Fitzgerald. Some other encounters he had along the way are described in the traditional story of Hugh Glass, but actual facts are somewhat scarce. An apocryphal account of the adventure was first published under the title “The Missouri Trapper” in a Philadelphia publication called “The PortFolio”, and in the Missouri Intelligencer in 1825. Many retellings of the story followed over the years, complete with a backstory full of other adventures (See Chittenden 1902, p. 698-706; hughglass.org/sources).↩
4. Artifact photo:
A= “dragon sideplate” fragment from site 39ST14
B= gun parts from site 32ML39
C= “dragon sideplate” fragment from site 39ST202
D= flintlock gun hammer from site 32ME15
E= iron butt plate and nail from site 39ST43
F= decorated gun hammer part from site 39LM26
G= decorated rifle part from site 32ML39
H= gun lock main spring from site 39ST202 ↩
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