William Ashley- Pioneer Dinosaur River RunnerMay 26, 2022
By Roy Webb:
It so happens that I’m helping with a new film for the Dinosaur National Monument visitors center; they had asked me to expound on the rich river history of Dinosaur, which I’m always glad to do. So yesterday I got an email from them about a photo of William Ashley, THE pioneer Dinosaur river runner. But Ashley died in 1838, the same year photography was invented in France; so there couldn’t be a photo of him. I’ve been studying him for decades, and I don’t think I’ve seen even a sketch. They’re checking some sources I gave them to see if there’s a portrait, since he was later the Lt. Governor of Missouri.
It caught my attention because Ashley has always been one of my heroes. He and his mountain men were the first to float the Green through Dinosaur, in 1825; he was the first fur trader to hire his own trappers, instead of buying furs from the Native Americans, and have them winter over in the mountains to get the best furs; he introduced some of the most famous names into the fur trade, like Jedidiah Smith, David Jackson—Jackson Hole—and the Sublette brothers. And he started the famous rendezvous that epitomizes the history of the mountain men. He was one of the very few to make his fortune in the fur trade, even though it went on for another twenty years.
How this all happened is a long and fascinating story, but I’ll stick to the river. He and seven men set out from the Sweetwater crossing of the Green in bullboats, disposable boats made of buffalo skins stretched over willow frames. The first hundred miles was easy going through the flatlands of what’s now Wyoming; even when they came to Flaming Gorge, they were uneasy but the water was swift but there were no real rapids. When they came to Red Canyon, however, the going was much tougher. Red Canyon—think of Lodore but running east and west—had rapids like Skull Creek and what later became Ashley Falls. But their boats were light and their belongings few, so it was easy enough to get by the rapids. At the latter, a giant rock blocks the river, and while the men were portaging, Ashley went up in the rocks and wrote his name—ASHLEY 1825. When Frederick Dellenbaugh, with Powell in 1871, saw it, they named the rapid. They made it through the rest of Red Canyon, into Browns Park, perhaps named for one of his men, and entered Lodore.
I love Ashley’s description of his feelings in Lodore so much I’ve memorized it:
“As we drifted along beneath these massy walls, which in great degree excluded from us the rays of heaven, I was forcibly struck by the gloom which came over the countenances of my men. They seemed to anticipate a dreadful end to our voyage, and I must admit I took in some measure of their feelings, for things about us truly had an awful appearance.”
I’m “forcibly struck” now and then by everyday life, and I always say so, even though no one knows what it means. They worked their way down the canyon, finally coming to the Uinta Basin, where they ran into a party of Taos trappers under Antoine Robidoux around the mouth of the White River. Deciding to join forces, Ashley left the river and went on to great things; it was said of him that he was one of the very few that ever made any money in the fur trade, even though it went on for another twenty years. Ashley might have left the river, but he left a lot of signs, as the trappers would say. Ashley Falls, of course, considered the biggest and most dangerous rapid on the Green (although it really wasn’t, but that’s another long story). For more than a hundred years, getting past Ashley Falls was the right of passage for every early river runner. The Kolb brothers in 1911 waited until they’d made it through to paint the names on their boats, and many people left signatures on the rocks right above the rapid on the left.
The other mark Ashley left on the river actually came from John Wesley Powell. In his Exploration of the Canyons of the Colorado, he related a tale he must have heard from an old trapper. Powell was told that Ashely and his men survived the dreaded “Green River Suck,” a dangerous cataract where the river dropped 250 feet in a few miles, but wrecked at Ashley Falls, and lost all of their food and boats. They wandered in the wilderness until they were about to draw lots for which one of them to eat, when they were rescued by Shoshones, for this was their homeland. Or it might have been aliens; or Girl Scouts. Those would be just as true as the rest of the story.
It started with James Beckwourth, a former slave turned trapper, who was part of Ashley’s group but wasn’t on the river with him. When he told his tales to a credulous biographer in 1850, he related Ashley’s travails as if he’d been there. When Ashley’s boat capsized in Split Mountain and he was sinking “for I cannot swim,” Beckwourth claimed he dove in and swam Ashley to shore through the foaming waves. Except it was really Thomas Fitzpatrick, another famous mountain man. But once Powell repeated these disasters in print, it took hold on the imaginations of river runners until the canyons were covered by the reservoir. Motoring across the lake in a storm on a long river trip in 1989, we even heard the “The lake sunk a Bayliner” variant of the same tale. It still shows up every now and then; it’s a great story. But the tales of wrecks and cannibalism were straight out of Beckwourth’s imagination. Anyone who could tell a good lie was much prized around trapper campfires to pass the long nights, but there was something to the Green River Suck. Interviewing a woman who grew up on a ranch right above Flaming Gorge finally opened my eyes. In the high water of spring, the Green could run up to 25K CFS. All that water piled up at the opening into Flaming Gorge and created huge dangerous whirlpools. She told me that her dad lost two bulls, trying to swim them across the river miles upstream.
All underwater now, sadly; it’s about four miles above the dam, so it was flooded almost as soon as the gates on Flaming Gorge Dam were closed in 1963. I’ve made some tries at getting an info kiosk put up in one of the campgrounds by the dam, or at the visitors center. No luck yet but it’s worth keeping after. I’ve always joked that I’m the world’s expert on Ashley Falls, and that $3.79 will buy me a Big Mac. I wrote an entire chapter on it in my last book.
Is that far enough down the tributaries and side canyons of Green River history? There’s plenty more, but I’ll save that for later. Don’t get me started on steamboats on the Green!
Roy Webb is an author and renowned river historian. Spending a lifetime holding long memory for these special places, Roy said he began his life’s work simply because “It didn’t seem anyone else was”. He now stands as the go-to river historian for the desert southwest. Some of his first river trips were with Dee & Sue Holladay & Roy remains committed to enjoying quality family-oriented river trips. “Rivers always ask me a question: where have I come from and where am I going?”. Come join him on our Retro rafting trips sometime!