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The Northwest’s first venture capitalist

Peter Stark's new book ties Astoria to a failed attempt to build a world trade empire. Credit: Amazon

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.

The international flavor of Astor's enterprise was not just in its trade routes, but in its participants. Both on land and afloat, the members were men — and one pregnant Indian woman, Marie Dorian — of many backgrounds: frontiersmen and American seamen, Scottish fur traders from Canada, French voyageurs, Indians, Hawaiians and others that were hired along the way. There were cultural clashes, some significant. The American commander of the Tonquin, Jonathan Thorn, was a brave naval hero known for facing down Barbary pirates. But he so alienated the Scotsmen and voyageurs on his ship that he nearly abandoned some of them in the Falklands. The resulting rift badly fractured the enterprise.

Those difficulties led to disastrous consequences. The Tonquin made it to the mouth of the Columbia and Fort Astoria was founded. The ship then left to trade with northern tribes on Vancouver Island. The prickly Thorn so infuriated his aboriginal trading partners that they attacked his ship, slaughtering Thorn and his entire crew. The last surviving member aboard, however, was able to ignite the vessel's powder magazine and blew scores of Indians to kingdom come. 

The land expedition had its own problems. Slow moving and worried about the hostility of the Blackfeet, the group deviated from the trail up the Missouri forged by Lewis and Clark and tried to blaze a new route West. Caught in winter, starving, sometimes lost, the group broke into parts, yet members still managed to find their way to the Columbia and thence downriver in a feat that calls to mind the hardships often faced by Arctic expeditions.

While the adventurers ultimately reached their destination and established the settlement, Stark tells us that Astoria in its original conception failed. While Astor had a winning strategy and his employees and partners were intrepid, the venture fell victim to events beyond anyone's control; namely, the War of 1812, whose outcome placed the Columbia country firmly in the hands of the British.

Astor might have resisted the British takeover on his hard-won turf in Oregon had his isolated colony not been betrayed from within. Astoria was sold at a bargain price to the competing British North West Company by his on-site Scottish partners (in 1813) and shortly thereafter formally claimed by the commander of a British warship dispatched by the Royal Navy.

As a result, Astoria never became the seed for a new New York on the Pacific, the commercial center of Jefferson's Western empire, or perhaps an independent Pacific Republic founded by John Jacob Astor. Astor went on to make more money in the fur trade east of the Rockies, a more manageable enterprise, but his gamble on Astoria helped open up the West. When he died, his fortune was estimated at $20 million, the equivalent of $110 billion today. That's a bigger pile than the one amassed by Northwest native Bill Gates, the world's richest man, the John Jacob Astor of software.

Even if the dream of an empire founded on fur fizzled, the Astoria enterprise laid the groundwork, literally, for what came after. Some of Astoria's returning members discovered an easier way across the Rockies at South Pass, which was low enough for wagons. Much of these overland routes became the mainline of the Oregon Trail. In the end, that remnant of Astor's global network was the means by which the new empire Jefferson sought became populated by average American settlers and not the exploited domain of one American businessman.

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