Book review: ‘Astoria’ tells story of Lost Pacific Empire
Special to the Daily
The course of history has never been linear, and a simple twist of fate or an unexpected turn of events has often altered a pathway and derailed even the best laid plans.
For example, the very anatomy of the mainland United States could have looked very different if legendary businessman and landowner John Jacob Astor’s empirical dreams in the earliest years of the republic had come to fruition as he had intended.
“Astoria; John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival,” a recent book by author Peter Stark, examines the gripping details of the brief life and tempestuous death of a frontier outpost that, had it thrived as planned, might have transformed America’s western and even northern boundaries.
Though Astor’s ultimate dream of a West Coast empire from which America could rule trade across the Pacific Ocean never materialized, the story of the attempt is truly extraordinary and deserves a more prominent place in history, alongside the legendary explorations of Lewis and Clark. In spite of the derailment of the endeavor’s original plans, it is the failures of the brave individuals who Astor chose to lead his two doomed expeditions to the fabled mouth of the mighty Columbia River that ultimately led to the establishment of the Oregon Trail and the eventual statehoods of the entire Pacific Coast region.
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John Jacob Astor was very much a man of his time, an ambitious individual who personified the noble journey embodied in the Grimm’s tales of his home country. From a small German village, Astor headed off with his brothers to seek their fortunes, and he set his sights early on reaching America, as he had been goal-oriented, even if that goal seemed distant and unreachable. He was 21 when he reached the shores of North America in 1784 as the United States was still a fledgling country. At that time, the young nation was tied to the coast, the vast interior being still very much a land of exotic unknowns.
Astor “believed in meticulous planning, bold vision, huge risk and relentless focus on his bottom line.” Following those tenets, he quickly established himself in the still rural Manhattan and began to accumulate both land and wealth. According to Stark, “he treated money — and men — as something to be invested for the long term and he knew that along the way there were sure to be some heavy losses, whether measured in dollars or human lives.”
AMERICA’S CHESS BOARD
As the potential of the natural bounty of North America began to coalesce, Astor quickly understood that the fur trade would come to dominate the new markets that were emerging and he had enough imagination and vision to anticipate that the scantily explored West Coast would be a gold mine for expansion. With fortuitous timing, Astor wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson, expressing his interest in facilitating a more established fur trade with lands across the Pacific, namely Russia and China. Stark calls Jefferson a “philosophical idealist possessed of a continent-wide vision,” while Astor is described as committed wholly to “his business empire.” The Pacific Coast was the chess board for the two men, “a tabula rasa for statecraft on a hemispherical scale and trade on a global one.”
Astor began to assemble a team, whose goal would be an attempt to reach the West Coast by two simultaneous routes — the first by ship, around Cape Horn, while the second party traveled overland from the east. The plan was intended to culminate in a convergence, where the Columbia River spilled into the ocean, at the location Astor hoped to place the first U.S. settlement of pioneers. “It would form the apex of an elegant and fantastically profitable triangle of trade between three continents that employed a fleet of Astor’s ships continuously circling the globe,” Stark writes.
It was a costly and risky venture, with many unknown variables, as well as significant dangers for those who undertook the journey and without a crystal ball, they could not envision that their efforts would be measured with “a toll in lives, in fortunes, in sanity and in the ultimate configuration of America.”
Stark proceeds to follow the hazardous journeys of both parties in Astor’s employ as they made their ways westward and the details of both the sea journey of the ship the “Tonquin” and the arduous tribulations of the Overland Party make for engrossing reading. One hurdle after another is overcome — storms at sea, hostile Indians, winter starvation, internal tensions and near-mutinies and the impediments as a result of the War of 1812 — in order to establish the short-lived outpost of Astoria, the focus of John Jacob Astor’s greatest dream and biggest disappointment.
Stark raises the question that maybe failure had been an inevitability, given the scale of the undertaking. But Astor, ever the businessman, put his losses behind him, continuing to stockpile wealth and land in Manhattan. Perhaps, if different fates had intervened, there is no telling how the story of Astoria might have ended.