Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 197-98.
Richard Clokey's biography of William Ashley is the product of fifteen years of research. The time was well spent; this is a thorough, perceptive, and interesting study of a man who played an important role in the early development of the American West. Perhaps more could have been made of Ashley in the existential sense, giving the reader more insight into his personality, but as a historian (and not a psychohistorian) Clokey understandably chose to emphasize the public rather than the private man. Still, Ashley emerges from his actions as a man who "sought respect and admiration and,. .. projected the image as a leader of men, able, restrained, responsible, and in command" (p. 52).
Ashley's role in the fur trade is well-known, thanks to the research of the late Dale Morgan. Clokey's main achievement is to place this segment of Ashley's life in the context of the years that preceded and followed it. What materializes is a depiction of Ashley as a "Jacksonian Man," the type whom Richard Hofstadter described as "an expectant capitalist, a hard working ambitious person for whom enterprise was a kind of religion."
Ashley was born in Virginia in 1778 to a family of modest means. As a young man he moved west in two steps: first to Kentucky in 1798 and then on to the Missouri lead meaning region of St. Genevieve in 1802. There he took advantage of every opportunity to advance himself, engaging in lead mining, the gunpowder trade, and land speculation. He took risks and showed imagination in all his dealings, but he stretched his credit thin and was constantly assailed by debtors. In frontier Missouri this was no blemish to his reputation, and he was elected lieutenant governor of the state in 1820 and appointed general in the state militia in 1821. Ashley's main ambitions were social and political. The economic enterprises were simply means to an end.