William Earl Cook at the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming
In the fall of 1999, I picked up a book written almost 30 years ago about my grandmother Carrie Jane Darley's ancestors. One paragraph in the book caught my attention and was the reason that I was now standing in front of the Wind River Range.

The passage said that my great-great-grandfather, John Wesley Darley, Sr. had married the granddaughter of William Henry Ashley. That still didn't mean much to me until I asked my friend, Michael 'Mick' Gordon, if he knew who Ashley was?

Mick had just recently retired and the first thing that he did upon retiring was to rent a camper and follow Lewis and Clark's Trail. Mick then replied, "Yes, I know who he was!" And then he brought me a book about the history of the American west. That was November, 1999.

Since then, I have been absorbed in my research of Ashley and the Mountain Men of the West. As I read further, I realized that 2000 was the 175th anniversary of the fateful trip that Ashley and his men took in 1824-25 that took them over South Pass and into the country on the western slopes of the Rockies. It was at that time that I decided that I was going to retrace some of those steps on this 175th anniversary.

As a businessman, I read with interest about the struggles that Ashley underwent with his partner Andrew Henry as they attempted to establish their fur trading/trapping business in the unexplored lands of the United States. It was easy to relate to those struggles. I especially admired Ashley when he kept having to 'pick up the pieces' as other men quit. When his partner, Andrew Henry, retired, it was left to Ashley to lead the expedition and his men into the mountains in an effort to save their business. Ashley succeeded against the odds and became very wealthy. The men they had hired became famous... Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith and William Sublette.

 
William Ashley was not what we think of as a 'mountain man', but through his courage, intelligence and efforts, the mountain man of the west was born. Ashley revolutionized the fur trade by establishing the first rendezvous where the men were left in the mountains and the supplies were brought to them once a year. The first rendezvous was held July 1, 1825, almost exactly 175 years from the date of the current Green River Rendezvous on July 6-9, 2000.

I made a whirlwind visit to southeastern Wyoming and northeastern Utah between July 6 - 9. I attended the lecture by Dr. Fred Gowans on the history of the Mountain Men on Thursday night, drove to the Grand Teton Mountains on Friday morning, went on a tour of the rendezvous sites on Friday afternoon with Dr. Gowans leading, ate buffalo at the roast and then visited Green River Lake on Friday night. On Saturday, I began the day at the pancake breakfast held at a local church and then roamed the trader's fair downtown. After that, I watched the parade and then drove up Skyline Drive before heading to the Rendezvous Pageant where most of the photos of this site were taken. Once the pageant was over, I headed for South Pass.

Once home, I realized that I did not have any photos of South Pass. I have plenty of video, but no photos. In retrospect, I realize that South Pass is really impossible to capture in a photo. That is the reason I have based my images upon satellite photography to properly illustrate the scale. Most people think of a mountain pass with steep cliffs overlooking a narrow passage through the mountains. That is not South Pass. South Pass is a broad, gently sloping area that is basically nondescript. The sage and prairie hens dominate the landscape while the Rocky Mountains loom in the distance. South Pass is important because wagons could cross the continental divide at this spot.

At South Pass, I drove my car down a road not meant for cars to get to the actual pass. Once there, alone, hungry, tired and with my car running hot, I marveled at the spot I was standing. How many thousands of people and hundreds of wagon trains had passed this way? I wondered, "Did William Ashley and his men pass where I was standing or was it 20 feet over in that direction or five feet in that direction? I was overwhelmed with the thoughts of the thousands of courageous people that had stood and passed on the ground that I was standing. Storms were brewing to the west in the direction where I was heading, my car might not make it and I was not sure how many more hours I had to go that day and wondered how many more hours I could safely drive. It had already been a long day and I had no idea how many more miles I could make.

Suddenly, my problems seemed trivial as I compared them to the trailblazers, the mountain men and the settlers that had passed that way before. I stood in the ruts left by the wagon trains and looked to the west and the trail disappeared into the desolate landscape. What courage those early people had when they crossed through this country. No maps, no photos and nothing definite to describe where they were heading. Dreams of a better life pulled them towards the west.

I headed back down the slope of South Pass as the highway paralled the Big Sandy Creek. This was the stream that Ashley and his men followed down the western slope of South Pass. I was on a highway that followed the general path of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Pony Express and there was no traffic on the highway.

Once I came to the Green River, I could see the tree line that followed the meandering river. Where the Big Sandy and the Green River met looked like an oasis in the desert. This is where Ashley and his men built their bull boat out of buffalo hides and where Ashley split his men into different groups and sent them different ways. At this point, the Green River looks deceptively mild. It is fairly wide and the current moves at a moderately fast pace. It was here that Ashley and a small group of his men entered the river.

From here, I followed the Green River to the south until I came over a rise and was met with the modern transcontinental traffic. There was I-80 with cars and trucks going both directions and trains in the background as they passed through the narrow pass at the town of Green River, Wyoming. The Palisades rose sharply by the highway as the traffic zoomed along the interstate. I then realized that I was on the modern equivalent of the Oregon and California Trail. I pulled off and went to my room. Exhausted, I looked out my window at the countryside with the storms brewing and saw a magnificent rainbow shining over the Green River and Flaming Gorge to the south, my destination for Sunday.

I awoke early on Sunday morning knowing that I had many miles to cover as I headed south along the Green River, through Flaming Gorge, over the Unita Mountains and then through Ashley Valley back to Salt Lake City where my airplane would await me... if I made it. I looked into the mirror in my room with excited, but tired eyes and said, "William Ashley, I make this trip today in your honor and with your spirit and courage, I will make it."

Driving through the desert at 6 am with no traffic on the road and fantastic scenery in the distance, elated me and propelled me. I envisioned Ashley and his men to my left as they floated down the Green River in their bullboats. At this stage, they were optimistic. They were now west of the Continental Divide on a river and floating in a boat after spending 10 months walking across the country from St. Louis and through the snow of the Rocky Mountains. floating on a boat in a river in the warm desert sun with these mountains as a vista must've seemed like a dream to them. But, it began to change as the cliffs of Flaming Gorge and Red Canyon began to rise and squeeze the river into narrow rock strewn channels with rapids and waterfalls blocking their way. At one point, it looked to them as if the river actually disappeared into the side of a mountain. I could only imagine the fear that was in the minds of Ashley and his men as the river ever more quickly propelled them into this chasm. With no idea of what faced them around each turn in the river, they continued their adventure down the Green.

The road enters Ashley National Forest as it begins to climb into the Unita Mountains. I ran into red rocks and cliffs, the likeness I have only seen in two other beautiful spots on earth... Sedona, Arizona and the Riviera in France. As I climbed into the mountains and left the river down in the canyons to my left, I felt grateful that history had named such a beautiful spot on earth after Ashley. I am not sure how much of this land he had seen, but I feel that he would be elated that history had remembered him and his contributions and had put his name on this wonderful area.

I turned to head down to the Flaming Gorge Dam and stopped at the visitor center. The rangers were very helpful and we chatted about Ashley and my 'mission'. It seems that John Wesley Powell and his expedition down the Green and then on down the Colorado River dominate the history at the dam. He had followed Ashley approximately 25 years later and had left his mark in history and had named Flaming Gorge. Even though we were in Ashley National Forest and Ashley had been the first man in recorded history to navigate the Green River, there was surprisingly little information about him at the visitor center.

Earlier in the year, when I had decided to make the journey to the Green River Rendezvous, I was surprised to find that there was not mention of the fact that this year was the 175th anniversary of Ashley's journey and the first rendezvous. The Museum of the Mountain Man later replied that they would have a special ceremony at the beginning of the pageant and asked if they could use some of the material from my web site. It nearly brought tears to my eyes as the pageant opened with this special recognition and I heard my works spoken by the announcer.

For the past several years, I have had a dream where I would be driving in the west in an area that I had not traveled, but that seemed familiar. I did not put any special significance on these dreams, but they did stuck in my memory. When I attended the rendezvous and then drove through Ashley National Forest, I realized that I was in the land about which I had been dreaming.

William Earl Cook at Flaming Gorge Dam, Utah on the Green River

Earl Cook is a 20 year veteran of the microcomputer industry and is currently a consultant and developer of custom software. For pleasure, Earl is a webmaster, photojournalist and amateur historian. Earl has written custom software for BELLSouth, GTE, Northern Telecom, Turner Broadcasting Systems, Turner Network Television, Motorola and Delta Air Lines and has developed over 15 web sites. He was one of the pioneers of desktop publishing and was one of the founders and the first president of the Atlanta Desktop Publishers Association. As a sports photojournalist, Earl has covered major international sports car events at the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Petit Le Mans. He is also the author of a multimedia CD-ROM produced in 1996

Standing on Flaming Gorge dam. The spot where Ashley Falls was located is approximately 1,000 feet upstream from the dam.

On the large relief map of the Green River and Flaming Gorge that is displayed in the visitors center, Ashley Falls was not listed. I made a request to the rangers on duty that it be added.

History says that Ashley was married three times and had no children, so, as Dr. Fred Gowans said to me, "You are a unique bird. I've never met a descendent of someone that history says had no children!"

So, it is a long family history against established history in this regard. I find it unusual, but not impossible, that someone had three wives, but had no children.

However this turns out, it was still a fantastic adventure and I am still impressed with the accomplishments of William Ashley and his men. Whether or not history proves that I am a descendent of Ashley is secondary.

Thanks to everyone I met on this trip for your assistance! It was an adventure that I will never forget.

Earl Cook
July, 2000

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Websites of William Earl Cook

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Gen. William Henry Ashley

Rev. Thomas Darley

The Art & Vision of James Turrell

Petit Le Mans Guide

CyberCup World Championship


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