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American Moguls: John Jacob Astor

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

John Jacob Astor, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

John Jacob Astor


Opium has harm. Opium is poison, undermining our customs and morality. Chinese Qing Dynasty Emperor Daoguang

Johann Jakob Astor was born in Waldorf, Germany. He was the son of a butcher and the youngest of four brothers. At 16, Johann went to England to work for his uncle, who made pianos and flutes. There he anglicized his name to John Jacob Astor.

After the American Revolutionary War ended, he sailed to Baltimore, where one of his brothers was a butcher. On the passage, the ship was frozen in the ice for two months. He struck up a friendship with a fellow passenger who sang the praises for the fur trade as a way to quick fortune.

In Baltimore, he went to work for his brother but also began buying raw pelts from upper New York, preparing them himself and selling them for large profits. This led to buying more pelts and hiring agents and processors; by 1800, he was a very wealthy man.

After the Louisiana Purchase, with praise and admiration from President Thomas Jefferson, Astor was permitted to establish the American Fur Company and the Pacific Fur Company. Astor sent a ship around Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia River and a land expedition to reach the same point. The land expedition found a southern pass through the Rocky Mountains, the same path thousands of white immigrants would use in the 19th century.

The ship reached the Columbia River first and set up Fort Astoria in 1811. The fort was to be a base for the fur trading business, with the furs shipped to China. The War of 1812 led the fearful occupants of the fort to sell the fort to a British fur company. When a British warship arrived to take the fort, they found it was already British. The fort was renamed Fort George.

In 1817 a law forbade non-Americans from the fur trade in the U.S. This was a huge boon for Astor. He absorbed his competitors, expanding to become the premiere fur company in America. He employed 750 agents and earned half a million dollars annually. He structured his enterprises very carefully and efficiently, more modern than other businesses of the time.

Astor himself never set an animal trap. The great majority of pelts came from American Indians. The trade goods the Indians were interested in were weapons, blankets, cookware, liquor, and more. The trade dramatically impacted the native people’s way of life and the environment. Liquor detrimentally changed the traditional social structure of some villages, European diseases ravaged the population, when animals became scarce, tribes went into other groups’ territories, and conflicts arose. Some estimates have the early beaver population of North America at 400 million; by the end of the 19th century, there were approximately 100 thousand. This slaughter made an enormous difference in waterways and flooding. Other species were equally decimated.

Astor’s shipping empire was worldwide, trading not only furs but whatever goods brought a hefty profit. One of those goods was opium. The opium trade to China was dominated by the British, who fought two wars against China in the mid-19th century in part to force the Chinese to allow British opium into the country. Astor saw the vast profits to be made and had 10 tons of Turkish opium sent to China. At the time, it was illegal to import the drug, so smaller Chinese ships would meet the large trading vessels at sea and bring it into the harbor. Chinese officials were then paid handsomely to look the other way. Addiction of the Chinese people was rampant, destroying tens of thousands people’s lives and weakening the country.

Astor also sold opium to Europe and America, where the drug was legal. He even advertised the drug for consumer purchase in newspapers. During the U.S. Civil War, 10 million opium pills and 2.8 million ounces of opium were given to the troops as the only effective painkiller available. In the later 19th century, opium became the first serious addiction problem America would suffer. The problem was caused by physicians prescribing the drug for pain and other uses. It was often used for “women’s nervous problems.” The majority of addicts were middle and upper-class women.

In 1830, Astor sold his fur company and other ventures to focus his energy on real estate, New York City in particular. He bought his friend Aaron Burr’s NYC property that Burr needed to sell quickly to get to Europe after his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton. Astor purchased 70-acres of land and had Astor Mansion erected. He was a multi-millionaire, ready to use money to speculate. He bought land piece by piece, always looking for the bargains. He purchased land outside the city limits knowing that they would soon be in the city limits. When the Panic of 1837 hit, he bought property that people couldn’t afford to keep anymore or had been foreclosed. Astor became known as the “Landlord of Manhattan.” He had no leniency for tenants late on their rent, and had the reputation of being hard-hearted, cold, and calculating. He came to own 1/20th of New York City.

John Jacob Astor died at the age of 84. His will left money to build the Astor Library that became the great New York Library. He left funds to establish an orphanage and poorhouse in his hometown of Waldorf, Germany. Astor’s enormous fortune went to his eight children, with the bulk going to his second son, William.

Astor was a cunning capitalist and visionary in shaping his businesses. He was said to be quiet, secretive, ready for calculated risk, decisive, patient, a master of details, and shrewd. John Jacob Astor was a master of making money but had little, or no thought of how amassing his fortune would impact others, and it negatively impacted untold thousands.

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