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The Life & Times of John Jacob Astor: the first multi-millionaire in the United States

Ian Harvey

John Jacob Astor, not to be confused with John Jacob Astor IV who died when the Titanic sunk, was born in Waldorf, Germany, on July 17, 1763.  He was able to earn enough money from odd jobs to join his older brother in London.  He spent a few years there learning English and about the colonies in North America.

After the United States had won the Revolutionary War, Astor decided to move to New York.  On his voyage, he met a prosperous fur trader from North America who educated Astor in the business of fur trading.  It did not take long before Astor had amassed enough furs to return to London to sell them.

 

John Jacob Astor portrait by John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1825.

John Jacob Astor portrait by John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1825.

Upon his return to New York, he opened a shop in Manhattan, which was not yet the bustling metropolis it is today.  By 1800, he had successfully expanded his business enough to export furs to England and China and became America’s first millionaire.

He followed the news of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with great interest as he realized they were opening up the west for more trade opportunities.  By 1808 he consolidated all of his interests and founded the American Fur Company.  He satisfied the public’s desire for fur items; especially the then current trend for top hats made from felted beaver fur and eventually monopolized the fur trading industry.

Astor decided it would be in his best interest to locate a fur trading post in Oregon to enable his furs to be shipped to China in a more expeditious manner than sailing from New York, around the tip of South America and then to China.  He sent two expeditions to the west coast, one over land and one by ship, the Tonquin.

The Tonquin reached the entrance to the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory in March 1811, where they established Fort Astoria where the town of Astoria, Oregon is now located.  Three months later, the ship moved further up the coast where the native Tla-o-qui-aht tribe captured and murdered the crew and destroyed the ship after a misunderstanding during trade negotiations in the Battle of Woody Point.  The inhabitants of Fort Astoria stayed in the Oregon Territory as they had good relations with the local Natives and felt safe enough to continue building the fort.

The over land expedition arrived in the spring of 1812. They had experienced altercations with Natives and had trouble finding their way through the mountains causing them to make camp for the duration of the winter.  Robert Stuart, who had come west on the Tonquin and remained at the fort when the ship departed up the coast, led an expedition east to inform Astor of the lost ship and crew.  By traveling more to the southeast than the original party had done to avoid the Natives in the Yellowstone area, he found a way to traverse the mountains and forged a path which later became known as the Oregon Trail.

Fur traders attempted to keep the trail Stuart had discovered a secret but as westward expansion grew, settlers heading west started using the trail, and it eventually became the most trekked way of reaching the coast, carrying thousands of pioneers and their families to a new land.

When Stuart’s party left for the east, they had no way of knowing that the United States and Great Britain had gone to war.  It took seven months for the news of the breakout of the War of 1812 to reach Fort Astoria. British fur traders who had brought the news were also establishing forts in the Oregon Territory.  In fear of being unable to receive supplies and support from Astoria’s Pacific Fur Company, Donald Mackenzie, Duncan McDougall, David Stuart and John Clarke sold the fort to the British North West Company in 1813. The fort was renamed Fort George for the British King and remained in the hands of the British until 1821, About Education reported.

Portrait of Astor by the painter Gilbert Stuart.

Portrait of Astor by the painter Gilbert Stuart.

 

Astor eventually tired of the fur trading business and recognizing the future worth of land in Manhattan he switched to property investments.

Here is another story from us: America’s first female self-made millionaire was an African American woman

While his foray into the west was not profitable, his attempt at controlling the fur trading industry led to the successful opening of the west for settlement.