Andrew Henry, a mountain man whose innovations revolutionized the modi operandi of the American fur business, was a partner in both the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company and the firm of Ashley and Henry. Although largely forgotten today, it was Henry, more than anyone else, who redirected the fur industry’s focus from trading with the Indians to relying on independent trappers.
Henry was born in York County, Pennsylvania, around 1775. He left home as a young man after a disagreement with family members over his plans for marriage. Eventually he landed in Nashville, Tennessee, where he resided between 1798 and 1800. In the latter year, he settled at Ste. Genevieve in Upper Louisiana but returned to Nashville briefly in 1802. The following year he was back in Ste. Genevieve seeking to engage in lead mining. He formed a partnership with William Henry Ashley, and they purchased a 640-acre tract, subsequently known as “Henry’s Diggings,” in the mining district of Washington County.
As a rising man of business, Henry also involved himself in civic affairs, serving as a justice of the peace, a militia officer, and a trustee for the Ste. Genevieve Academy. In 1805 he married Marie Villars, the French Creole daughter of a former commandant at Ste. Genevieve, but, mysteriously, the marriage lasted only three weeks. Their brief union did produce a daughter. In 1807 Henry bought out Ashley’s half interest in the mine, which he continued to work.
By 1809 Henry had done sufficiently well to enable him to join the newly formed St. Louis Missouri Fur Company as a partner, in association with Manuel Lisa, (Jean) Pierre Chouteau, William Clark, and several other noteworthy individuals. Although Henry was the least known of the firm’s partners, he became one of its ablest field captains. He traveled up the Missouri River with the company’s 1809 expedition and spent the next two years in the wilderness in pursuit of furs. A skilled woodsman, liked and respected by his men, Henry accompanied a contingent to the Three Forks area of the Missouri, where they encountered stiff opposition from hostile Blackfeet Indians.
In the fall of 1810, Henry set out in search of a friendlier environment for trading. He led an expedition across the Continental Divide to winter and trade among the more peaceful tribes beyond the Rockies. After a difficult winter on the Snake River, where he and his men were forced to subsist on roots and dress themselves in skins, Henry returned to the upper Missouri with enough beaver pelts to show a modest profit for the venture. Following his return to St. Louis in the fall of 1811, Henry withdrew from the fur trade, discouraged perhaps by the dissension among his partners, the growing likelihood of war with Britain, and his displeasure with company operations.
Following the outbreak of the War of 1812, Henry enlisted in the territorial militia, serving as a major in a regiment commanded by his friend and former partner Ashley. He resumed mining for a time, but he was deeply in debt and perpetually hounded by creditors. Operations had ceased at his mine by 1816, and he apparently turned to farming after acquiring a promising spread on the Black River in Washington County. In 1819 he married Mary Fleming, and in contrast with his first marriage, this one lasted until Henry’s death fourteen years later. The couple had four children.
With his debts mounting and a new wife and child to support, Henry was ready to return to the fur trade. In 1821 he entered discussions with Ashley, and the former partners formed a new venture known as the Ashley and Henry Company. They agreed that Henry would be the firm’s principal agent in the field and that Ashley would handle the business end of the operations. Largely at Henry’s instigation, they planned to introduce three significant innovations. First, the company intended to place its primary emphasis on trapping rather than trading. Second, the firm would no longer seek to maintain a fortified trading post as the hub of its field operations. Third, the trappers in the field would be independent businessmen, not company employees.
In the spring of 1822 the firm dispatched an expedition upriver with Henry in command. Their intended destination was the fur-rich Three Forks area, but after losing many of their horses to an Assiniboine raiding party, Henry decided to proceed only as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone. From there he dispatched trappers up the Missouri and the Yellowstone to winter in the beaver country.
When Henry ventured into Blackfeet territory in the spring of 1823, members of the hostile tribe attacked and once again inflicted casualties. He retreated to the mouth of the Yellowstone to await word from Ashley, who was expected to arrive upriver from St. Louis. However, Jedediah Strong Smith brought news that the Ashley expedition had been ambushed by the Arikara. Henry left a small force at the Yellowstone camp and took the remainder of his men downriver to assist Ashley’s beleaguered band.
With the upper Missouri now effectively closed by the Arikara and the Blackfeet, Henry subsequently decided to vacate the Yellowstone post and head west to the Bighorn River and the friendlier Crow territory. After wintering there, he returned to St. Louis in the summer of 1824 with the furs that his parties had collected. He intended to return to the mountains but never did, choosing to remain with his family in Missouri.
Henry withdrew from the business before he and Ashley turned a profit, leaving him destitute and ignored. He died at his Washington County farm on June 10, 1833, with little to show for his labors. Consigned to live in Ashley’s shadow, it was, in fact, Andrew Henry who had been responsible for many of the innovations that had helped make his partner both rich and famous.
This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.
Clokey, Richard M. William H. Ashley: Enterprise and Politics in the Trans-Mississippi West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
Oglesby, Richard E. Manuel Lisa and the Opening of the Missouri Fur Trade. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
White, Linda, and Fred R. Gowans. “Traders to Trappers: Andrew Henry and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade.” Parts 1 and 2. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43 (Winter 1993): 58–65; (Summer 1993): 54–63.
Published September 16, 2021; Last updated September 20, 2021
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