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‘Astoria’: A tale of furs, America

ASTORIA: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark. Ecco. 366 pp. $27.99. ISBN 978-0062218292

Few American families have stayed rich and famous as long as the Astors. In the late 19th century, the Mrs. Astor was the arbiter of New York City society. Only a few years ago, tabloid newspapers played up a dispute over a remnant slice of the Astor fortune when certain family members fought to wrest control of the purse strings from the centenarian Brooke Astor. And to this day, the Astor name conjures up elegance in connection with Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Waldorf being the German town where the dynasty’s founder was born. In his new book, Astoria, veteran journalist Peter Stark tells the story of how that primordial Astor tried to make good on a dream that might have gone far beyond simple money-making.

The year was 1810, and the dreamer was the prosperous German American fur trader John Jacob Astor. Encouraged by ex-president Thomas Jefferson and acting on sparse information supplied by Lewis and Clark and a few other explorers, Astor made plans to buy and sell furs on a gargantuan scale. Stark lays out the network that the high-flying immigrant had in mind: “His innovation was to link the interior North American fur trade over the Rockies with the Pacific coastal fur trade and link that to the Russian Alaskan fur trade, and link that to China, to London, to Paris, to New York. Astor’s thinking revolved on entire continents and oceans.”

To accomplish all this linkage, Astor had to get a lot of pieces on the board, and his first move was to send out an expedition. As Stark reminds the reader more than once, however, Astor bankrolled his agents and gave them instructions as to what he wanted done, but he did not himself brave the Rockies, or summon the diplomacy needed to win the confidence of Indians, or face starvation, or lose the way when maps proved useless, or contend with the profound cold of Western winters, or sail vast distances, or deal with mutinous crews. Near the end of the book, Stark asks, “How would John Jacob Astor have fared in the remote rainforest on the Pacific Coast rather than a solid-brick, double-rowhouse on Lower Broadway?” It’s a rhetorical question. Astor was an urban-dwelling merchant with enough capital to hire others to carry out his scheme.

As suggested by that catalogue of activities never engaged in by Astor, the expedition proceeded on multiple fronts. There was a seagoing contingent onboard a ship called the Tonquin, which was to carry its cargo (most notably the hardware needed to build an outpost) around Cape Horn and up the west coasts of South and North America to the mouth of the Columbia River. There was also an overland party with a mandate to reach the interior West by river and then proceed as best they could to the coast – on horses when they had them, on foot when they did not – for a rendezvous with their nautical brethren.

Game all but disappeared during the winter, and the overlanders soon faced starvation. Peril came from another source when the way forward became impassable in what is now known as Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River in Idaho and Oregon. Unable to punch through either raging rapids or harsh badlands, the overlanders backtracked and broke into small groups so that if one party found a way out, the others could benefit, too. Of all this, back in Manhattan, Astor had no idea.

A guilty pleasure of the book is watching the unraveling of the Tonquin’s captain, a martinet named Jonathan Thorn. He acquitted himself well in the arduous task of getting the Tonquin to the mouth of the Columbia. But with no experience outside his own narrow culture, he was hopeless in dealing with “civilians.” He managed to alienate two disparate groups: first, the worldly, pleasure-loving Scots who sailed on the Tonquin as Astor’s co-investors and partners and who took umbrage when Thorn had the gall to boss them around; and second, the Indians with whom Thorn parleyed for furs. His intransigence toward the Indians led to the killing of almost everyone onboard his ship, himself included.

These and other mishaps spelled failure for the expedition. In addition to losing 40 percent of his travelers to starvation, disease and violent death, Astor suffered the humiliation of having his Western assets liquidated. In 1813, a partner sold “John Jacob Astor’s West Coast enterprise and first American colony on the Pacific and all its goods . . . for about thirty cents on the dollar” to the Montreal-based North West Co..

Stark moves skillfully back and forth from one segment of the splintered expedition to another. He also raises a tantalizing question about the enterprise as a whole. Astor went on to make his fortune in other ways, but what if he’d realized his Pacific Coast dream? Jefferson and other statesmen had given little thought as to how Astoria, as the short-lived outpost was called, would be assimilated into the United States – or whether it would be assimilated at all.

At times, Astor spoke and acted as if he envisaged not just a trading empire but also a political one. Had he laid more emphasis on people skills in choosing his expedition’s leaders, and had they been able to draw upon a decent storehouse of knowledge about the continent they were about to cross, America’s destiny might not have been so manifest. Instead of being compatriots of Washingtonians and Oregonians, the rest of us might be sharing a long border with the sovereign nation of Astoria.

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