John Jacob Astor was born July 17, 1763, in Walldorf, Germany (near Heidelberg). He came to the United States after the American Revolution and began trading furs, shipping them to Europe via New York. Business was good, and Astor was well on his way to making his fortune when he got a boost with the signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1794. By 1800, just a few years after coming to the United States, he was even wealthier.
Astor founded the American Fur Company in 1808 and used two company subsidiaries – Pacific Fur Company and Southwest Fur Company – to control the trade on the Columbia River and the Great Lakes area. Since this was newly acquired territory for the United States, Astor wrote to then President Thomas Jefferson about his intended venture in February 1808. Jefferson seems to have been enthusiastic and responded by saying: “I learn with great satisfaction the disposition of our merchants to form into companies for understanding the Indian trade within our own territories.”
Jefferson continued to be interested in Astor’s activities, and in a letter to Meriwether Lewis in July of 1808 he mentioned Astor as “a most excellent man” who had hopes of meeting Lewis in St. Louis. He also continued to correspond with Astor, and in a letter dated March 14, 1812, Astor updated Jefferson on the activities of the company. The next year Astor wrote again in October 1813 with more information and updates to which Jefferson replied “I learn with great pleasure the progress you have made towards an establishment on the Columbia River.”
While the War of 1812 temporarily disrupted the fur trade, fur trading wasn’t Astor’s only business. Throughout the years, Astor was also involved with trade to China and heavily invested in real estate. One of his early forays seems to have been when he bought Richmond Hill from the estate of Aaron Burr after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. Astor then subdivided this land further, making money from those parcels he sold or leased.
Astor’s wealth and stature put him in position to be consulted on many issues related to money and finance. Many prominent and wealthy men, including Astor, felt that the government needed a better way to finance itself. This was brought into acute focus during the War of 1812. Beginning in 1813, there was a move to create a Second Bank of the United States and by 1816 the new Second Bank of the United States was chartered. Astor was so involved with the creation, that according to the Senate Executive Journal for Tuesday, April 23, 1816:
I nominate … John Jacob Astor, a citizen of the United States, residing at New York, in the State of New York, to be five of the Directors of the Bank of the United States, in pursuance of the 9th section of the act, entitled “An act to incorporate the subscribers to the Bank of the United States.”
In 1822 Astor had Astor House built on Mackinac Island to be a headquarters for the reorganized American Fur Company. Washington Irving even wrote about it in his book Astoria. By1830 the company held a monopoly on furs from the U.S., but competitors were on the rise, and in the early 1830’s Astor moved on. After leaving American Fur he invested even more in his real estate ventures, particularly in Manhattan.
Astor died on March 29, 1848 as one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Upon his death he left money for the creation of the Astor library which was later to become part of the New York Public Library. Sixteen years after his death, a namesake and great grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, was born, and it was this John Jacob Astor who died on board the Titanic.