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John Jacob Astor

fur trader

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor was born in the village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, on July 17, 1763, the son of a butcher. He spent his early years working for his father, then went to London, where he spent four years working in his uncle's piano and flute factory. He emigrated to America in 1783, and settled in New York City in 1784.

It was while on the transatlantic voyage that Astor first learned of the potential wealth that could be made in the fur business, and within a year after his arrival in New York City he was making regular trips to London in order to sell furs purchased in America; he would then use part of his profits to buy European goods, which he would in turn sell for even more profits back in America. By 1800 he had a net worth of $250,000, owned a ship, and was importing arms and wool.

Always on the lookout for ever greater business potential, Astor naturally looked towards the vast Pacific Northwest as a potentially rich source of valuable furs. In April 1808 he founded the American Fur Company, with the goal of establishing a base of operations on the Pacific Coast, from which he could ship furs both east and west. In 1811 one of his subsidiary companies succeeded in founding Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, at the site of what is now Astoria, Oregon. By the early 1820's Astor had a total monopoly on fur trade in the United States, as well as a very successful overseas trade.

By 1835 Astor had tired of the fur business and decided to concentrate on New York City real estate. His first New York land venture had actually begun back in 1797, when he bought a farm in the middle of what is now Manhattan for $25,000, a very high sum in those days. At the time of his death, that same piece of land was worth $25,000 per square yard. There is little evidence to suggest that any of his other land ventures were any less successful.

When John Jacob Astor died in New York City on March 29, 1848, he left behind an estate worth some $30,000,000. A substantial portion of that estate was bequeathed to a number of charitable organizations, including the New York Public Library.

Encyclopędia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopędia Britannica, 1957

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This page was last updated on March 29, 2018.