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Retracing the trip that created one of America's first millionaires

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Retracing the trip that created one of America's first millionaires

In his hands, a fire suddenly blooms, in gently cradled cottonwood fur and wispy snippets of grass.

If the beauty is burning his hands, the man called Amish shows no sign of distress.

Unhurriedly, he places this newly made rose of fire within a ring of stones placed lightly on the ground inside a lone tipi, raised just a night or so ago at Fort Union.

Nothing in the scene is missing that you might expect to find in an 1825 expedition.

There are period oilcloth bags containing provisions that hold precious sugar for coffee in the morning, or dried bits of jerky for chewing along the way.

There are tin cups to hold that joyful fist of first coffee in the morning. And there are, yes, like it or not, buckskin clothes that need to be repaired by the sunbeaten and wind-weathered hands of men.

Amish, known in the everyday world as Scott Staggs, is traveling with two other men at this point in their historic journey. Gerry Messmer of New York, who goes by Lucky in camp, and their ringleader, Jack Mitch, who is called Poncho.

This whole trip was Poncho’s idea.

“What we are doing is retracing the trail of a man named William Ashley, who owned the Rocky Mountain Fur Company,” Poncho says. “He had come out west to supply the men he had hired to trap for him. He held his first rendezvous at Henry’s Fork, west of the Green River near the Utah border.”

That Rendezvous, held July 1, 1825, was not the very first of its kind. But it was the first to show just how wildly successful this commercial model could be.

Ashley came up with supplies for his trappers, who in turn arrived to turn in pelts and furs that Ashley would take home with him to St. Louis — at least 9,000 beaver pelts in all.

Ashley's successful return with so many of the fur pelts, used at that time to make the fashionable, tall hats of the era, made him a fortune overnight. That fortune, added to what he already had, made him one of the New World's first millionaires, Messmer said. Among the first of what would one day be many self-made American men.

His trip home was fraught with many dangers, of course, not least of which were occasional bands of Indians. They had been known to sometimes attack travelers with such goods as Ashley had in his possession, and take them by brute force.

Ashley floated with this treasure trove of furs on the Big Horn River in bull boats all the way to the Yellowstone River. He arrived at its confluence with the Missouri in about the same time frame as Amish, Lucky and Poncho — albeit with a chasm of 193 years lying in between.

At the confluence, Ashley met two military officers who were making treaties with Indians, trying to get them to stop attacking supply boats. The two men let Ashley load his valuable furs onto their keel boats for the rest of the journey home to St. Louis.

Thus Ashley's model was not only been proven. It was a huge commercial success.

And the west would never be the same again.

Mitch, who is something of a contrarian, began thinking about Ashley’s return while participating in the national camps that American Mountain Men put on each year. One of these is near the site of that original Rendezvous.

“Men will sometimes ride into the camp a week before because they are that serious about being period correct,” Mitch said. “But no one has ever done a period correct return like Ashley's from a Rendezvous that I know of.”

As he was getting ready to retire, Mitch started talking out loud about the idea of recreating Ashley’s return to St. Louis. It'd be an 1,800-mile journey across the country. In period gear. With period transportation.

That would mean hundreds of miles on horseback. And miles of river in boats they would make themselves, by hand.

They would be exposed to 80 mph wind, driving rain, mosquitoes in the millions, and yes, there was even the possibility of death along the way.

They would take no modern conveniences. There would be no team following them with gear. There would be only a small medical aid kit, and a cell phone — turned off — to serve as an emergency beacon if there was an extreme need.

Yet Mitch’s idea blossomed, just like that tiny spark that grows into a beautiful fire each night in their campground. A fire that cooks their food as they talk about their day and keeps them warm as they dream, through the night.

Messmer, too, was getting ready to retire, he told Mitch, so the idea really appealed to him.

It was really perfect timing, the two decided. They had to do it.

Staggs is Mitch's neighbor, so Mitch told him about the idea one day while they were shooting pool and having a beer.

“I’ll do it,” Staggs said.

He didn't even think about it.

“I’m always up for a challenge, something different that most people won't do," he explained. "Me and my son built a car and drove it to LA the day after he graduated from school.”

Soon, others were on board. It was a crazy, but wonderful idea. It had to happen.

Members from other states helped the men plot routes around modern-day obstacles such as interstate highways and dams. They also helped them figure out waypoints, where the men could resupply water and receive period-correct food, such as elk or antelope steaks.

Meanwhile, a Colorado man named William Bailey began making them an authentic keel boat for the final leg of their journey down the Missouri.

Bailey has used cotton and oakum, which is a tarred fiber, to seal the boat he’s building. There are benches and oarlocks for rowers, and a cabin on top of the craft, as well as a mast for a sail.

Keel boats were generally 50 feet long and up to 16 feet wide. They could haul a fair amount of trade goods upriver to trading posts — up to 30 tons in one trip.

Bailey’s boat will be 50 feet long and about 8 feet wide, and will accommodate about 6,500 pounds. It will also include a hidden outboard motor — a modern day requirement for being on the lower Missouri River. It's called the Muskrat.

The Muskrat is a little behind schedule, Mitch said.

The trio have also decided that they should not use this keel boat to cross Lake Sakakawea. Keel boats don't do well on large, windy lakes, for one. And that particular lake didn’t exist in Ashley’s timeframe. It is a modern-day challenge outside the scope of their historic adventure.

“We’re going to meet him at Gavin’s Point near Yankton and from there we will take the boat 800, 900 miles to St. Charles, which is near St. Louis,” Mitch said. “We’ll take out at the Lewis and Clark Center there, which is an appropriate place to end our trip.”

The three men say their trip so far has been eye-opening in many different ways, while also offering them a chance to share history in a different way.

The trio, for example, visited Rau School in Sidney Thursday afternoon to talk to the children in Leif Halvorson's class about the history of mountain men and William Ashley.

They demonstrated period fishing gear, showed off period guns and weapons, and Staggs showed them how to start a fire without a match.

“It’s amazing how much you can do without, and how little you can live on and how simply you can live, with just some tarps and your dried foods and just survive," Messmer said. "If you get wet, you dry everything out and you keep going.”

Staggs pointed out that each man is able to carry all his camp gear in one trip. Food is a different story. Due to modern day hunting seasons, they had to bring their food with them.

“But we would hunt for our food for this, too, if it were in season at this time of year,” Staggs said.

As it is, they have caught catfish and mountain white fish along the way. Which are delicious over a smoky campfire after a long day of travel.

They’ve also had enormous and unexpected help along the way, Staggs said. That’s been amazing and uplifting.

“The word is humanity I believe,” he said. “Seeing the people you meet along the way and how they will help you out as far as gear and food, offering anything we need. Nowadays, I feel in this world, there is not much of that. But on this trip, we have a received a lot of overwhelming support, and it’s been fantastic.”

Mitch said Discovery Channel had wanted to send a television crew with them, but he turned them down.

“We are not actors,” he said. “We are not going to produce drama for them, because then we couldn’t do our thing.”

Their thing, he explained is very simple. Like the beautiful fire that blooms in camp each night.

“It’s just informing people about this time period and this trip,” he said.

Maybe it inspires someone else to do something a little bit crazy. Maybe it educates them on a little sliver of history that is sometimes pushed aside. Or maybe it just lights a little fire of old-fashioned kindness in a world that desperately needs it.

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