Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, by Peter Stark, Harper Collins Publishers (www.harpercollins.com), 2014, 384 pages, $27.99
In 1810, less than five years after the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s westward push to the Pacific Coast, entrepreneur and visionary John Jacob Astor approached Thomas Jefferson with a proposition – to establish a trading emporium along the then-unexplored Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, and there build an empire. Recognizing in the fur trade America’s untapped tradable wealth, Astor conceived “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known,” a scheme bold enough to make a Bond villain blush: to (a) import blankets, pots, and beads from London and New York and convey them to the Pacific Coast, where he would (b) exchange the goods for furs from the coastal and inland Indians along established trading posts, so that he could then (c) resell the furs in Canton China and purchase porcelain, tea, and silk, which he would lastly (d) resell at markets in New York and London at an unimaginable markup. All Astor needed was to secure an overland route across the North American continent and seed a colony from which his empire would flourish.
To see his vision through, Astor – a pauper-cum-millionaire made in the fur trade and real estate for whom money was no object – assembled two parties. His Overland Party, led by the thoughtful Wilson Price Hunt, was to cross the Rockies and establish an interior network of trading posts. His Seagoing Party, lead by the mercurial US Naval Captain Jonathan Thorn, was to transport supplies and tradable goods around Cape Horn to join with the Overland Party at the Columbia River. There, along the (more-or-less) unexplored horizon of the Pacific Ocean, the two companies would meet up and break ground for Astor’s great empire. That, at least, was the plan.
What played out next across the North American continent as both parties forged westward reads like a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Fighting off starvation, abandonment, theft, betrayal, inclement weather, scurvy, insanity, paranoia, cannibalism, scalping, vengeful (and friendly) Indians, and the looming threat of war – oh, and death, plenty of death, the two parties struggled against towering waves, unforgiving mountains, and bone-chilling drafts of sea and snow. And those that made it found themselves no better off, stranded in Astoria and removed from the world, wondering whether reinforcements would arrive before their enemies. Replete with tales of derring-do and self-sacrifice, and those more shameful, including a vindictive ship captain leaping into a longboat to beat the daylights out of a sailor with a handful of sugarcane stalks for arriving after the ship’s departure, there is no shortage of white-knuckle moments.
In the years to follow, the paths Astor’s men forged across the Rockies would seed the United State’s westward expansion along the Oregon Trail. But for so great an achievement, Astoria’s history has been inexplicably eclipsed somewhere between the period of Native American occupation and the California Gold Rush. But not so in Astoria. From cover to cover, the labored birth of Astoria is woven together seamlessly and entertainingly by Peter Stark, whose craft as a storyteller makes Astoria a delight to read. Astor, Hunt, and Thorn leap from the pages in fairytale fashion, becoming larger than life as Stark dusts off a chapter of history much forgotten today. Well researched and well told, Astoria intermingles a nostalgia for our once-unexplored continent with an awe inspiring respect for the unforgiving lands and the men and women that braved them.