Odessa mayor recounts adventure
ODESSA--Among his many ventures, William Ashley (c.1778-1838) aspired to be a politician. To obtain money for this career path, he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1822, which, catering to the demand for beaver felt hats, played a significant role in the expansion of the American west. Between July 2 and Oct. 4, 1825, Ashley returned from an expedition to transport supplies to his employees in the Rocky Mountains, traveling from what is now Lone Tree, Wyoming, to St. Louis. This sojourn became the template for a 2019 re-creation for several men, including Odessa Mayor Gerry Messmer, who described his experience to an audience gathered at the Odessa fire hall Saturday, Jan. 25.
Jack Mitch, originator of the plan, approached Messmer with the idea in 2017. The sole purpose was to discover whether they could accomplish this; as Messmer said, they decided to make the attempt "just for ourselves." Aspects of their training included Messmer riding his horse, Bubbles, from Interlaken to Odessa and attending a mule packing school in Idaho; however, this provided only a fraction of an idea of what lay ahead. All supplies were hand-made and hand-sewn, including saddles, bridles and hobbles for horses. Two years proved to be insufficient time, and as the date of departure approached, there was a scramble to assemble the necessary provisions. They left July 6, four days past Ashley's starting date, and returned Oct. 8, encompassing the same number of days as their predecessor. As Ashley did not keep a journal of his travels, they plotted their path by consulting two books, The Splendid Wayfaring and Wheelboats on the Missouri, as well as maps from 1825.
They arrived at the original site for Ashley's rendezvous in Lone Tree, which is now on private property. All superfluous gear was discarded, and the bare minimum was packed into panniers placed on either side of their horses. Each pair of panniers was weighed every day to ensure they carried an equal load, with no more difference than a pound or two allowed. Everything, according to Messmer, revolved around the horses. Ashley's men, having more than a hundred at their disposal, shot and ate the lame ones, but Messmer's party had none to spare. They rode eight to nine hours a day, averaging 35 miles, and quickly developed painful saddle sores, which became tolerable after nine or 10 days. One horse lost 250 pounds on the journey.
Because they were not permitted to cross the Shoshone or Crow reservations, the party had to detour through the Red Desert, where they were without water for two days. The horses survived on alkaline water, which remained undrinkable for the men no matter how much they skimmed it. The average daytime temperature was in the 90s, but the smoked meat they brought kept well. Every day before dinner they ate a Hawaiian pupu dish of raw cabbage, onions, garlic and cheese. (The garlic was supposed to be a mosquito repellent, but Messmer did not believe it was of any help; he pointed out that everything the early writers of the west said concerning mosquitoes is true.) A typical main course consisted of corn chowder or black beans and rice, cooked over a fire using dried sage for fuel. They were never allowed to hunt, as no game was in season.
Now and again a sign of the modern world appeared, such as the surprising sight of a telephone pole. At another time, they waited 20 minutes for a train to pass. They observed four or five abandoned cabins, far from water or sources of wood, prompting the question, "What were you thinking?" When they reached Grable, Wyoming, they asked for and were granted permission to ride their horses through a bar, a moment captured on several photos that brought amusement to the audience.
At Fort Smith, Montana, they used a buffalo hide and canes to construct a bull boat. Accompanied by a dugout canoe and two pirogues joined like a catamaran, they headed along the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. (The horses had been taken from Billings, Montana, on a truck to Muncie, Indiana.) The surrounding scenery was as wild as anything they had seen, described by Messmer as peaceful, calming and boring. They camped alongside the river, once becoming so drenched by a passing tornado that it took an hour and a half to start a fire.
They arrived at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers within 24 hours of the same calendar day as Ashley and his men. They spent time at Camp Union, dating from the 1830s, and camped at Yankton, South Dakota, before beginning the most stressful and dangerous segment of their travels, along the Missouri River in the keelboat "Muskrat," which had been constructed for them over the course of nearly a year. According to Messmer, the boat "leaked like a sieve," and had to be patched with tar and hemp. It was built in the traditional manner, though it did have a motor, which the men had no choice but to use at times. The Missouri River was faster and deeper than in Ashley's day, and they had to beware of snags that could sink the boat, such as cottonwood trees growing out of the water. Navigating around wing dams also proved a challenge.
The generosity and cooperation of people they encountered were emphasized throughout. When the men stopped at an Apple Jack Festival at one town along the Missouri, they shared their story with eager listeners and left with approximately 50 pounds of donated food. Several historical sites were visited, including William Clark's 1805 camp and Ashley's grave near Arrowhead, Missouri. The day before they ended their journey in St. Charles, Missouri (to avoid the congestion of the river at St. Louis), they visited the memorial to John Colter (a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the first person of European descent to enter the region that is now Yellowstone National Park), where they met a woman identifying herself as Colter's fourth great-granddaughter.
Though one pack horse nearly drowned while crossing Pacific Springs, almost simultaneous with a horse falling upon one of the men, and shots were fired at them on the Yellowstone River, miraculously no one was injured in the 95 days. All the men wrote every night in their journals, and though they did not read each other's writings, Messmer and other participants are planning books detailing their adventure.
Photos of and related to the expedition can be found on two Facebook pages, "Ashley's Return" and "Journey of the Keelboat 'Muskrat.'"