More than 200 years ago, entrepreneur John Jacob Astor invested big to establish a Western empire and set up America's first truly global trade network. It almost worked.
Astoria, Oregon is perched at the mouth of the Columbia River. A classic Northwest resource town, it's the kind of place where loggers and fisherman can still empty a bar to brawl in the streets over who's tougher. While the town has turned to tourism, it maintains its working-class roots: a place built on fur, firs and fish.
The old ways are dying. The waterfront is lined with the ruins of cannery wharves and the governor of Oregon is looking to push Columbia River gillnetters off the main line of the river and into the side channels, which one fisherman describes as mud holes. A local Astoria folksinger, Hobe Kytr, has written a protest song about the effort, called "Starvation Bay."
The fickleness of resource economies is part of the city's history, as are the influences of distant global shifts. Though once isolated, Astoria's raison d'être was the international fur trade, whose progress was, in part, stunted by conflict between European empires. Astoria is the oldest American settlement West of the Rockies (founded 1811) and ground zero for one of the greatest entrepreneurial adventures of the early 19th century: The attempt by New York businessman John Jacob Astor to claim the West coast and set up the country's first global trade network.
That attempt at globalization is the subject of Peter Stark's entertaining new book, "Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire" (HarperCollins, $27.99). Stark's compelling, contextual account of Astoria's founding — at one time documented by none other than author Washington Irving — casts this early venture as a pivotal point in the development of the Pacific Northwest and the nation.
There are three main story threads. The first is Astor, a largely self-made man who made a fortune as a fur trade merchant and by buying up Manhattan real estate. The canny Astor saw the huge potential of tapping the fur trade beyond the Rockies. He met with Thomas Jefferson to seek the president's support for seizing this Western empire as a way to realize Jefferson's vision of a coast-to-coast, American-style democracy. Establishing business, trade and communications linkages in the lands newly explored by Lewis & Clark would help the budding nation secure claims that would benefit expansion and fend off the British whose fur traders were already in the vicinity.
Astor's strategy involved setting up a global trade network. Ships would sail West with trade goods from New York. Pelts would be acquired from native tribes and company trappers. They would then be shipped across the Pacific to China at huge profits. Chinese goods would then be purchased and continue West to London and ultimately back to New York. Astor wasn't the first to see the potential of such around-the-world trade, but he was one of the few who had the deep pockets to make it happen.
The others two threads of Stark's story follow the two groups Astor dispatched to set up his new trade center which, as Stark points out, was literally at the edge of the known world. Thousands of land miles lay between Astor's New York headquarters and his Pacific Northwest outposts. Communications took a year to travel — one way — across the vast, unmapped interior between. That is, if the messengers weren't ambushed or sunk in a storm. The isolation was profound, the climate miserable, the friendliness of the natives not to be taken for granted.
Astor sent one expedition by land, from St. Louis, the first overland expedition to the coast after Lewis & Clark. Led by Wilson Price Hunt, a rookie outdoorsman, the goal was to get to the mouth of the Columbia and establish a land route to the Pacific.
The second expedition was nautical, sailing an armed vessel, the Tonquin, packed with partners, clerks, traders and trade goods around the Horn to the river's mouth. Much of Stark's book is taken up with tales of these two journeys and the incredible hardships members of each expedition encountered along the way: scurvy, starvation, Indian attack, whitewater, near mutiny.
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