Sovereign contempt

  • Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, taken over by the British in 1813.

    UIG via Getty Images
 

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire:A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival
Peter Stark
366 pages, hardcover:
$27.99.
HarperCollins, 2014.

Everyone knows about the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-’06, but another entrepreneurial foray a few years later — larger, bolder, and, ultimately, a debacle – has fallen into historical oblivion. The Astor Expedition of 1810, financed by John Jacob Astor, was well-known to 19th century readers, largely due to Washington Irving’s 1836 chronicle. Now, Montana author Peter Stark brings it back to life in his nonfiction epic, Astoria.

As a model of global trade, Astor’s practice foreshadows contemporary international business. It is a story well worth reading, serving as a reminder of the engine of greed that drove Manifest Destiny — an engine still running full-bore in the West today.

Stark manages a huge cast of characters, all revolving around Astor, the German immigrant who started life as a New York City street vendor and became the Sam Walton of his day — worth $110 billion in contemporary dollars. After Lewis and Clark’s success, Astor financed two massive excursions to the Pacific Northwest to expand his fur-trapping and exporting business. He founded the eponymous settlement of Astoria at the mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River to supply otter and beaver pelts to his China/London/New York trading empire. “For Thomas Jefferson, who had enthusiastically encouraged Astor to start the colony, it would provide the beginnings of a separate country on the West Coast — a sister democracy to the United States that looked out to the Pacific,” writes Stark.

The story follows the captains of the two simultaneous expeditions, one overland and one at sea, as they race through multiple disasters, each hoping to arrive first at the Pacific. Stark’s account of their travels — plagued by problems instigated by both nature and human folly — reads like an adventure story by Herman Melville.

After rocky beginnings, Astoria fades into history, shut down by the War of 1812, which all Astor’s wealth and power cannot predict or prevent. In short order, the British take over the fur trade and the fort, thereby allowing coastal Indians a few more decades of freedom before U.S. expansionism swamps the Pacific Northwest. Stark’s portrait of a 19th century mogul will remind readers of certain modern businessmen — ruthless, avaricious and determined. In a 2014 conference room filled with American billionaires, John Jacob Astor would be right at home.