Businessman, Merchant, Investor. He became the first multi-millionaire and creator of the first trust in the United States as a result of his fur business, the American Fur Company. Born Johann Jakob Astor in what is now known as Waldorf, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, he began working as an assistant in his father's dairy business. In 1779, he emigrated to London, England, where he worked for an older brother, George Astor, who manufactured musical instruments. While there, he learned there was good money to be made buying and selling furs in the United States and in March 1783, he came to New York City where another of his older brothers, Henry Astor, had previously settled and worked for him in his butcher shop. Within three years he established a business buying furs from Native American trappers at the mouth of the Columbia River, and opened his own fur shop in New York City as well as becoming New York's agent for George Astor's musical instrument business. He took advantage of the 1794 Jay Treaty between the United States and England, which opened new fur markets in Canada and the Great Lakes region. He established fur trading posts along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers and by 1795, he had purchased a fleet of 12 ships which he employed to transport his furs to the Far East and Europe, bringing back manufactured goods and tea that he sold in the United States. In 1807, the US Embargo Act disrupted his fur trading business; however, with President Thomas Jefferson's permission, he established the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. In 1810, he established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. His fur trading business was disrupted again during the War of 1812 when the British captured some of his trading posts. In 1816, he became involved in the opium smuggling trade with China but left it after a few years. In 1817, when the US Congress passed a law that prevented foreign traders from US territories, his business rebounded and it became the dominate fur business around the Great Lakes. He established the Astor House on Mackinac Island, Michigan, as the headquarters for his reorganized American Fur Company. In 1834, he sold the American Fur Company and used the money to buy real estate around New York City, taking advantage of its potential growth. After his retirement, he devoted himself as a patron of the arts. He died in New York City, New York. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be worth around $20 million dollars.
When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he bequeathed $400,000 of his $25,000,000 fortune to establish a public library in New York City. With the exception of one small annuity for an old employee, Astor left the rest of his estate to his family. Astor was one of the wealthiest men the country had ever seen and his meager public bequest caused many to remember him as a miser who attempted to found an American dynasty by keeping the money in his family. Today many remember him as the owner of the American Fur Company and namesake of Astoria, Oregon.
Astor was born in Germany in 1763. His father was a butcher. After working for three years in his uncle’s London musical instrument making shop, he immigrated to New York, arriving in 1784. He married Sarah Todd in 1790. In 1786 he opened a small shop trading in furs. Soon after the 1794 Jay Treaty allowed Americans to trade in Canada (and Canadians to trade in the United States), Astor became America’s leading fur trader. His business was worth nearly $250,000. Astor expanded the scope of his trade around the turn of the century and began trading furs for tea in China. He also began investing in Manhattan real estate.
In 1808 Astor founded the American Fur Company and two years later, a subsidiary company to harvest Oregon furs. Hoping to monopolize trade in the West, Astor planned an outpost on the Pacific Coast. He sent two groups of trappers to the Columbia. One group, traveling by sea, arrived at the mouth of the Columbia in March 1811 and began constructing a fort, naming it Astoria. Another group, traveling overland, arrived in January 1812. Astor expected the venture to be profitable in its third year, but it did not last that long. In 1812 war broke out between Britain and the United States. The Astorians sold their fort to the Canadian North West Company in 1813. They did so just in time. Later that year a British warship arrived to take possession of the fort.
After losing his fort to the British, Astor continued to trade furs. In 1816 he convinced Congress to prohibit non-citizens from owning fur trading operations. The law forced the Northwest Company to sell its holdings south of the Great Lakes to Astor. In 1822, Astor again lobbied Congress, this time to close government operated trading posts. The posts closed and Astor’s company began consolidating its market share, at the expense of smaller companies and independent trappers. In 1834, Astor sold his fur company.
Astor died in 1848, the richest man in the country. Astoria, Oregon, is named for him. His family’s fortune lasted several generations.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
Sarah Cox Todd Astor
1762–1842 (m. 1785)