ASTOR, John Jacob, American merchant: b. Waldorf, Baden, near Heidelberg, 17 July 1763; d. 29 March 1848. He came to America in 1783, where his elder brother had settled and invested his savings in the fur trade. In 1784 he went with a cargo of furs to London; sold them and formed connection with fur houses there, and as his capital increased, made annual trips to Montreal, buying furs there and shipping them direct to London, as Canada was allowed to trade only with the mother country. In 1794 Jay's treaty removed this embargo, and Astor, then in London, at once made a contract with the Northwest Company of Montreal and Quebec (then the magnate of the Canadian Northwest fur trade), imported furs from Montreal to New York, and shipped them to all parts of Europe and China. The surrender of the lake posts under the treaty also greatly extended the trading limits, and Astor in a few years became one of the leading merchants and capitalists of the country, having a quarter of a million in 1798, and double that a few years later.
In 1807 he embarked in direct trade with the Indians by way of the Mohawk, and with the English fur companies; but found the American trade chiefly monopolized by the Mackinaw Company, and knowing our government's desire to keep its home trade in home hands, proposed with its protection to accomplish this himself. In 1809 he secured a New York charter for the "American Fur Company," but the War of 1812 suspended operations, and after it a government prohibition of British fur trade in the United States broke up the company. Meantime a grander scheme had been initiated. Sir Alexander Mackenzie, after crossing the continent far north in 1793, had suggested establishing a line of trading posts from ocean to ocean, with terminal, coast and island stations, to draw all except the Russian fur trade into one channel.
Lewis and Clarke's transcontinental expedition in 1804 proved its practicability on American soil, and Mr. Astor evolved the plan of distributing such posts along the Missouri and Columbia rivers, with a central station at the mouth of the latter, where all the peltries from the interior and those gathered by coasting vessels were to be collected and taken by a yearly ship to Canton, loading in return with Chinese goods. A later development was to operate a line of ships from the Pacific coast to the Chinese and East Indian ports, with a Hawaiian island for an intermediate port. The Russian Fur Company had already complained to the United States of the casual American trading vessels selling liquor and firearms to their Indians; the American government had consulted Astor for a remedy and his idea was to abolish this irresponsible trading by making his yearly supply ship take its place.
To prevent ruinous competition he offered the Northwest Company a one-third interest in the enterprise; but they declined it and sent a company to seize the mouth of the Columbia before his party could arrive. He succeeded in spite of them, however, in planting a settlement, which was named Astoria; but on the breaking out of the War of 1812 the English seized it. It reverted to the United States by the Treaty of Ghent, and Astor wished to revive the project, but the government was cool, and he dropped it, still however, buying his furs direct and trading with many countries, more particularly China, at that time the best fur mart in the world. He also made large amounts by buying depreciated government securities, which afterward commanded a considerable premium. But his chief investment was the one which has founded the family greatness on a rock.
Foreseeing the immense growth of New York city, he bought large tracts on Manhattan Island far beyond the then city limits, taught his son to invest his accumulations in the same way, and established [a] system of handling them .... In 1827 he and his son William, who had been his partner since 1815, withdrew from the China trade and formed the American Fur Company, chiefly managed by the great expert; but a few years later he retired from business altogether, thenceforth devoting himself to his investments, and devising, in consultation with others, plans for a public library suggested by Washington Irving, — afterward the Astor Library, for which he left $400,000 in his will. He made gifts and bequests to other objects; among them $50,000 for a school for poor children and a home for the indigent aged in his birthplace, Waldorf, called the Astor House.
He was much more than a great trader: he had a breadth of conception, a combined energy and patience of execution, a mastery of detail, a retentiveness of memory and a sagacity of judgment, which in the opinion of his intimates would have raised him to greatness in any line. He left two sons, William B. and John Jacob, and three daughters.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920