|J. J. Astor. Library of Congress.|
With no prospects at home, Astor left as a teenager. He spent four years in London, where he learned to speak English (with a heavy accent). Then, in 1784, John Jacob emigrated to the new United States.
He learned the fur trade and opened a shop in New York before 1790. Over the next decade, he expanded the fur business and used it to build an international shipping network, dealing also in teas and sandalwood. Then reports from the Lewis and Clark Expedition about the fur riches available in the Rocky Mountains drew his attention.
He created the American Fur Company, with the Pacific Fur Company as a subsidiary. In 1810, the Pacific Fur Company launched a two-pronged thrust. First, Astor’s ship, the Tonquin, carried a team to the mouth of the Columbia River, where they established a base, called Astoria. Second, a party led by Wilson Price Hunt trekked west from St. Louis, Missouri.
The Hunt party became the second group of white Americans to enter Idaho, crossing Teton Pass in October 1811 [blog, Oct 5]. But the War of 1812 against Great Britain ruined Astor’s first western venture.
Astoria became the property of the rival North West Company, and many of his employees went to work for that firm. Even so, first-hand reports from Astor's expeditions spurred a fur trade war that would last over a quarter century.
Although Astor dissolved the Pacific Fur Company, his American Fur Company continued to compete in the west and around the Great Lakes. Astor focused first on the eastern side of the Rockies. However, by 1830, his Company was the most powerful American fur trade competitor throughout the region, including Idaho.
Hard work and determination built Astor’s fortune, but he also had the ability to spot trends and position his enterprises to exploit them. In an 1833 letter, he wrote, “I very much fear beaver will not sell very soon unless very fine. It appears that they make hats of silk in place of beaver.”
|New York City, ca 1840. Library of Congress.|
When he died in 1848, he was by far the wealthiest man in the United States. In fact, when fortunes are compared to the national economy of their day, Astor ranks as the third or fourth richest American ever. By that measure, he is outranked only by John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, with Andrew Carnegie inserted by some analysts. (Bill Gates trails by a couple of spots.)
|Peter W. Bernstein, Annalyn Swan (eds.), All the Money in the World, Random House, Inc. in collaboration with Forbes magazine (2007).|
|H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).|
|Axel Madsen, John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York (2001).|