John Jacob Astor, Pioneer


Hotel Astoria, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Succeeding against tremendous odds, John Jacob Astor became the richest man in America. He said, “the first hundred thousand—that was hard to get; but afterwards it was easy to make more.” (This 1814 dollars.)

Astor, who landed in New York from Germany in 1784, built an immense business in the fur trade. He’d already made a fortune by the 1800s, but he wanted more. He convinced President Thomas Jefferson to sponsor him on an expedition to the Northwest coast to establish a trading outpost.

Long before anyone thought of railroads, Astor sponsored two expeditions. One, the Tonquin, by sea, carried a crew of Scots and French Canadians. The others, by land, contended with hostile Indians. Both groups suffered desperate privations, but eventually reached Oregon.

Astor’s emissaries traded blankets and beads for the furs of Indian trappers. The Chinese, in turn, exchanged their tea and silks for Astor’s precious pelts. American pioneers were not the only ones to explore Oregon. Russians were far closer than our East Coast pioneers. Astor’s group later sold out to the North West Co. of Canada.

Trading competition caused the War of 1812. Great Britain possessed the largest navy in the world, some 600 ships to the US’s 15. Still, in 1815 the US and Great Britain fought to a draw. Peter Stark tells the harrowing story in his book, “Astoria, John Jacob Aster and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire. A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival.”


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