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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 322

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This is the grave of John Jacob Astor.

Johann Jakob Astor was born in 1763 in Walldorf, in what is today Germany. His family was skilled workers and that seemed where he was heading. He moved to England in 1779 to work in his uncle’s instrument factory and then to the United States in 1784 to help out his brother who had opened a butcher shop in New York. It was after he went to London that he anglicized his name. He became interested in the fur trade after a conversation with a trader on his ship voyage to New York. He worked at the butcher shop for awhile but began to buy furs from Native Americans sellers, treat them himself, and ship them back to England. He started making a lot of money on this. By the late 1780s, Astor had opened his own fur shop in New York and was making very good money.

Astor’s fur empire really expanded after the Jay Treaty in 1794, which was largely seen as a failure by Americans, despite the lack of leverage in bargaining with the British, but which solidified the boundaries of the northern frontier where the main fur trade took place and made it easier for Americans to operate in Canada. Astor made deals with the North West Company, the chief rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He made money hand over fist. Astor had agents throughout the West and then helped pioneer the China trade, loading ships with furs in exchange for valuable goods such as sandalwood and tea. In 1808, Astor established the American Fur Company to control the entire U.S. fur trade. In 1811, he started the little town of Astoria, in what is today Oregon, as the first American outpost on the Pacific. Although the War of 1812 really dented his trade, he got the British back by engaging in opium smuggling after the war, undermining their Chinese trade for awhile by buying tons of opium from Turkey and selling it cheap to China before making a deal with the British to sell his interests to them. In 1817, Congress passed a protectionist law banning non-American fur traders from American trader. As Astor was the only big player in the fur trade, this law made him very, very rich. He lived the life of the elite in New York while his agents slogged through the mountains and prairies, exterminating beaver and deer and anything else that made a profit.

As Astor aged, he became less involved in the fur trade, in part because he had eliminated so many animals, especially in American territory, leaving the declining trade to the Canadians. So he moved into New York real estate in a real way. He had already been buying large tracts of land in the city (or what was to soon become the city, farther north on Manhattan) for a long time. He became one of the nation’s richest men through this. In late life, he engaged in philanthropy, supported the work of John James Audubon, promoted the political career of Henry Clay, and had a bunch of descendants who would define what extreme wealth meant in America. When he died, Astor was worth $20 million, easily the wealthiest person in America at that time, with estimates that put him at the 5th richest person in all of American history, if measured by present dollars.

John Jacob Astor is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan, New York.

If you would like this series to visit the grave of other people who defined the early white conquest of the American West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Kit Carson is in Taos, New Mexico and I need to eat some green chile soon. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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