Friday, August 21, 2015
Book Review: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark
I lived in Astoria, NY for five years and whenever I tried to google things, I'd often get results for Astoria, Oregon, which I'd never heard of before. I wondered if they were both named after the same guy, John Jacob Astor, and it turns out they were even though they were on opposite coasts. (It's not in the book but Astoria, NY was named by the neighborhood in hopes that Astor would come out there for vacations, but it didn't work.) But Astoria, Oregon was not only named for Astor, it was sponsored by him and founded by him.
Astor was an immigrant from Germany who built up the largest fur trade empire in the world. The most fertile hunting ground for furs was the Pacific Northwest. But there were no settlements in that region, making it difficult to make much inroads in the region, aside from trading with the local Native American tribes, and even that was precarious and iffy.
With President Jefferson's blessing, Astor decided to fund both an oversea and an overland expedition with the goal of founding a West Coast outpost of Astor's business at the mouth of the Columbia River, which Lewis and Clark had discovered just a few years earlier. It took a couple of years to get the expeditions up and running but off they went, with Captain Thorn in charge of the ship the Tonquin, and Wilson Price Hunt in charge of the overland expedition, trying to find a better route than Lewis and Clark's, one that avoided the Blackfeet territory and that found a better route through the Rockies.
This story used to be widely known in American history but now is pretty much forgotten. It's a riveting and harrowing story of unprepared pioneers who nonetheless managed substantial and impressive feats. A very easy read for a well-researched historical record.
I checked this book out of the library.