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William Ashley’s fur trappers attacked by Indians

Arikara Indians attack William Ashley and his band of fur traders, igniting the most important of the early 19th century battles between Indians and mountain men.

Two years before, William Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry had started the business that would eventually become the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In 1822, Ashley advertised for “enterprising young men” to join him in an ambitious fur trapping expedition up the Missouri River into the Yellowstone country of present-day Montana. Many who signed on would later become celebrated mountain men, including Jim Bridger, the Sublette brothers, Jed Smith, and Edward Rose. For the first few years, though, Ashley and his men were greenhorns who learned to survive in the wilderness through hard experience.

In the spring of 1823, Ashley led a force of about 70 men up the Missouri to begin a summer of trapping along the Yellowstone. On May 30, they reached the territory of the Arikara Indians near the present-day border between North and South Dakota. The Arikara were no friends to the fur trappers. Generally, they resented the Anglo trappers’ attempts to undercut the Indians’ central role as fur suppliers. More specifically, the Arikara were upset that several weeks earlier a group of trappers had rescued several Sioux warriors that the Arikara had been hunting.

On the morning of this day in 1823, a force of about 600 Arikara Indians attacked Ashley’s small band of trappers. Ashley later reported that the majority of the Indians were, “armed with London Fuzils [muskets] that carry a ball with great accuracy, and force, and which they use with as much expertness as any men I ever saw handle arms.” Those lacking guns attacked with bows and arrows and war axes.

The fierce Arikara warriors overwhelmed Ashley’s small band of mountain men, killing 12 and wounding many more. The survivors fled downstream; luckily, the Arikara did not pursue them. After the mountain men had regrouped, Ashley dispatched a messenger to St. Louis asking for military assistance. Colonel Henry Leavenworth immediately assembled a force of about 200 men and started up the river, gathering additional fighters along the way, including about 700 Sioux Indians. By the time Leavenworth’s army reached Ashley in early August, that number had grown to at least 1,100 men.

The subsequent skirmishes, later somewhat ostentatiously referred to as the Arikara Campaign, proved indecisive. Despite his overwhelming superiority in numbers and armaments, Leavenworth failed to engage the Indians. Following a few minor encounters, the Arikara quietly withdrew under the cover of night and disappeared. Everyone knew, however, that the Indians would return after the soldiers had departed. Since Leavenworth failed to seriously damage the Arikara fighting ability, the Upper Missouri River route continued to be too dangerous for the trappers for several years to come.

Desperate to keep his fledgling business alive, Ashley decided he had no choice but to abandon the traditional river routes and go overland. The next year, Ashley’s trappers headed west on horses rather than in boats. Ironically, this desperate gambit revolutionized the fur trade by vastly increasing the mobility of the fur trappers and opening up whole new regions of the American West. Three years later, Ashley retired from the fur trade a wealthy man.

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