Astoria: Astor & Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire is what more history books should aspire to be.
It is technically an deeply-researched history book about a massive project that gets overlooked in most overviews of American history (as with so much of the era between 1812 and 1861).
But as a reader, the book is more of a riveting adventure tale. It’s one of those stories from history that falls into the “you can’t make this up” bucket.
Peter Stark does an excellent job building out the context, characters, and narrative in a way that is rapid, engaging, but well-documented.
Because these book reviews are primarily for myself, I’m going to jump right into snippets of things I learned.
Things I Learned from Astoria
The fur trade was a very big deal in North America until the 2nd Industrial Revolution came in the 1850s. It makes sense though. It was cold. Very cold – colder than it gets now. Wool clothes were available, of course. But wool was still hard to cheaply sew. It was also not as luxurious or warm or versatile as fur. And North America had a lot of fur.
John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest people in the world (and possibly in history, adjusted for inflation). He built his empire on furs, primarily through truly adept logistics and distribution. He ran a multinational corporation before that was a thing.
Much of the US remained totally unexplored and uninhabited by European settlers until much later than I thought. Based on school textbooks, I had the impression that after Lewis & Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase that settlers just came with them. Absolutely not. It took another half-century before settlers started coming in any significant numbers.
And yet, many American politicians could see the geopolitical future. Jefferson knew about Russia’s imperial plans in Alaska. They obviously knew about England and France. Even Japan was being treated as a potential geopolitical threat (though 150 too early). Thus began a great American tradition, where Jefferson’s geopolitical interests aligned with Astor’s commercial interests. Jefferson provided the official & legal backing while Astor provided the money & logistics for a new settlement in disputed area.
Traveling overland and by sea back then was insane. There’s no real way to describe it without an understatement. The best part of this book was the collected writings of the actual settlers setting up a settlement with no contact and no support from anyone.
Also, John Jacob Astor needs to be in more business & self-help books. His outlook on business, his long-term systems thinking, and his rational approach to problem-solving is interesting to learn from. Here’s a passage where he received news about one of his main ships sinking –
Speaking of lessons from John Jacob Astor, I think his life is a a great way to reflect on building massive wealth, success, and what actually matters. So at his death, he was worth $138 billion in 2018 US Dollars. He’s the 3rd wealthiest American ever. And yet. If you had to list all the people that you know from 200 years ago – would he be on that list? Before I read this book, I had only vaguely heard of him. People like Jefferson, Thoreau, Morse, Truth, Lewis & Clark – would all make it. His life & legacy certainly gives some credence to the Giving Pledge, James 5:1-6, and traditional American thinking about a high Estate Tax.
Astoria is a fascinating book and great read. Definitely worth a hold at the library or a purchase from the bookstore.