Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

In the tradition of The Lost City of Z and Skeleton in the Zahara, Astoria is the thrilling, true-adventure tale of the 1810 Astor Expedition, an epic, now forgotten, three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast. Peter Stark offers a harrowing saga in which a band of explorers battled nature, starvation, and madness to establish the first American se...

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Title:Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival
Author:Peter Stark
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Edition Language:English

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival Reviews

  • Will Byrnes

    is a tale of two journeys. It is an adventure of the highest order, and with Peter Stark as your guide, it is one of the best non-fiction books you will read for a long time.

    In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase had brought the young United States all the land draining into the Mississippi (at least according to our side of the story). The President wanted to know all he could about what he had bought, particularly as there were still some disagreements going on over the breadth of the purcha

    is a tale of two journeys. It is an adventure of the highest order, and with Peter Stark as your guide, it is one of the best non-fiction books you will read for a long time.

    In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase had brought the young United States all the land draining into the Mississippi (at least according to our side of the story). The President wanted to know all he could about what he had bought, particularly as there were still some disagreements going on over the breadth of the purchase. Thus the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, in 1804, and the later Red River Expedition and Pike Expedition provided Jefferson the information about this new land he needed to negotiate with France, and others. But what lay beyond? Opportunity, resources, and vast swaths of land.

    - image taken from Random House

    In the early 1800s, John Jacob Astor was one of the richest men of his time. He had made a fortune trading North American furs in Europe, and had begun trading with China as well. What he had in mind was to take advantage of the fur resources of the Northwest and establish a triangle trade. Northwest furs to the Orient, porcelain from China to London and New York and other goods from there back to the Northwest. His aim was to monopolize trading on the Pacific Rim, at a time when Lewis and Clark had been across the country only a few years prior. He involved Jefferson, who also had a more global vision than other men of the day. The Northwest was unclaimed by westerners, (no thought was given, per usual, to the native people who were actually living there) and was considered available for the taking. For Astor it was to be a base for establishing a trade monopoly. Jefferson saw an opportunity to spread democracy to the west coast, and encouraged Astor. To accomplish his aim, it would be necessary for Astor to establish a base of operations. He decided on the area near the mouth of the Columbia River. He put together two groups of men to reach the spot, one to travel by sea the other to cross the continent by land. It is their adventures that form the bulk of the story, and what a story it is.

    Were this a novel, the dueling road trips would both be tales of self-discovery. This is a case where reality exceeds fiction. The character of many of the travelers is revealed in how they handle the extreme stresses to which they are subjected. Following the development, or revelation of their characters, for good or ill, is one of the great pleasures to be had in reading

    .

    The ship Astor sent was the

    , a 290 ton bark. He selected as its captain the young (31) US Navy lieutenant Jonathan Thorn. Thorn had been a military hero, serving with distinction in the Barbary Wars, and Astor wanted someone who could fend off potential attacks. Our friends across the pond, engaged in a tiff with Napoleon, had taken to stopping vessels in international waters and shanghaiing sailors or passengers who were British subjects to fight the French. Rule Britannia was not being sung by the crews of American-flag ships. This aqueous stop-and-frisk imposition would be one of the causes of the War of 1812.

    While the captain was the right sort for dealing with a military crew and worked well within the rigid specifications of a military regimen, he was not so adept at controlling a crew that was not exactly military, and most of whom were not even American citizens. Also aboard were shareholders in Astor’s company, a dozen clerks, four tradesmen and a baker’s dozen rough and tumble

    from what is now Canada. He also had a lot to learn about dealing with locals and trade negotiating. The ship was challenged to endure near continual onslaught, whether from the elements, a pursuing ship, or the captain’s personality. He got along so well with the crew that they took to speaking with each other in their native tongues, which Thorn did not speak. And more than once he intentionally set sail while tardy returnees were still on land. His rigidity made for a dark passage. And his sometimes cavalier attitude towards the survival of his own men is breathtaking. He might be charged with depraved indifference today. Along with a certain Captain Queeg, I was reminded of a scene from

    . Consider here Thorn as the king (although Arthur seems quite a bit less rigid) and the castle residents as his crew.

    The Overland Party was led by Wilson Price Hunt, a young (27) businessman who had worked with fur-traders in St Louis. A polar opposite to Thorn, Hunt was someone who sought, above all else, to construct consensus. The Overland group did not exactly have a roadmap to their destination. The route they took followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark for a time, but they had to carve a new trail at a certain point, into completely unknown and not terribly welcoming territory.

    - the image is from the Canadian Encyclopedia

    Far too much of their river time was spent in water of this sort.

    In a blog entry on Stark’s site, he writes

    It is amazing how many times the Overland Party was assisted by Native Americans. But there were also plenty of locals who were not exactly happy to see them. How the Overland group interact with the natives they encounter is a significant element of the story. How they survived, (or didn’t) is the stuff of adventure yarns. How Hunt herded his pack of cats (and sometimes didn’t) is very impressive.

    This was definitely not a crew to belong to if you walked on four limbs. Resources became extremely scarce, and desperate measures had to be taken. There is even a hint that starving sojourners might have partaken of the

    meat.

    Some characters stand out here. My favorite is Marie Dorian, a native woman who had married a

    named Pierre. He dragged her along on the Overland trek, along with her two small (2 and 4 year old) children even thought she was pregnant at the time. Hers is a particularly poignant profile in courage and endurance. There are a few legendary names that folks in this tale encounter, including Sacagawea and Daniel Boone.

    The story is the thing here, and focus remains on the travails of the travelers. But there are also excellent, informative asides, relevant to the tale, about various and sundry things. One tells why sea otter pelts are so highly valued. Another looks into the societal composition of some native groups, looking at their sources of wealth and social organization. Consideration is given to how the locals react to newcomers, and why, citing past experiences. There is also ongoing consideration for the impact on the enterprise of potential and then kinetic British-US hostilities.

    We know today that the nation did indeed expand to the West Coast, but the details are plenty soft in your recollections, I will wager. It might not even be that you (or I) forgot, but that we never really knew. Astoria offers an excellent way to mend that hole. It will excite you in the process. This is real-life adventuring, life and death on the line, people you will admire and scoundrels who will make you want to hiss. What a fun read, and what an informative book. It may or may not be a far, far better read than you have ever had before, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to climb, trek, paddle or sail to your nearest book-trading post. This journey to Astoria is very definitely a trip worth taking.

    PS – the volume I worked from was an ARE, so did not have all the materials expected to be in the final hardcover edition. Spaces were left for illustrations but I did not get to see those. One thing I did see is that there is a very helpful

    section at the front of the book, and another at the back called

    , which I thought was pretty cool.

    was published on March 4, 2014

    Trade paperback edition - February 10, 2015

    This review was posted on December 8, 2013

    This review is cross-posted on

    =============================

    Links to the author’s

    and

    pages

    Here is a link to the

    for the Tonquin – but if you have not yet read the book, be warned that there is very spoilerish info there.

    Although I expect the physique of this re-enactor might not match the bulkier torsos of actual voyageurs, this might give you an idea of what was considered proper attire for the proud paddlers

    Astor could not have suspected that Astoria would become a familiar site in many films. Here is a list of

    . It includes

    and plenty more.

    John Day was a member of the Overland Party. He does run into a bit of trouble at the mouth of what was then the Mah-hah River, along the Columbia. It was later renamed for him. A geologically notable site through which that river wanders was also named for him. Day himself was never near there. I have had the pleasure and there are a few shots in my

    on Flickr that offer a glimpse of the striking landscape.

    The National Park Service

    for John Day NP is definitely worth a look

    Among the places the Overland Party encountered, one that held great hope for them was seeing one particular Mountain chain.

    Also, that image I use as my GR avatar to spare you the crypt-worthy image of my ancient puss is from the Tetons as well.

    Today’s city of Astoria, Oregon has a nice

    Sadly, while I have been to Astoria, and even visited its Astor Column, it was while my wife and I were in a bit of a rush, heading back to our temporary camp in Portland from a trip to the coast. Did not get there until far too late in the day to get any decent photographs. Then, assisted by considerable fog, we inadvertently took a scenic route that featured a seemingly endless series of blind turns, and was inhabited by large numbers of bulky four-legged creatures standing in the middle of the road and appearing only moments before impact…well, in my white-knuckled imagination, anyway. Having read the book, I would dearly love to return to Astoria, in daylight, and have much more of a clue than I had then what it was all about.

  • Matthew Hall

    White dudes are stupid but brave.

  • Misfit

    Astoria is a non-fiction book about the

    of 1810-1812, and the Wiki link can probably summarize it better than I. There were two groups sent to what is now Astoria, Oregon, one via land and one via sea and both long, dangerous journeys.

    Astoria is a non-fiction book about the

    of 1810-1812, and the Wiki link can probably summarize it better than I. There were two groups sent to what is now Astoria, Oregon, one via land and one via sea and both long, dangerous journeys.

    And once they get there (or do they all get there?), there's still stuff like hostile natives, the notorious sandbar at the mouth of the Columbia River to get a ship through, enormous trees to cut down before you can build and all that rain. And what do you do about supplies when it takes months to wait for the next supply ship? And what about those struggling to make it via the Overland route?

    Even though this book wasn't quite what I expected (stupid me, I thought it was about the later settlements at Astoria), I did enjoy this a lot and learned lots of new-to-me historical factoids (always a plus). The author did go off on the occasional *lecture* or two where I ended up skimming a bit (seriously, I didn't need a several page lecture on the dangers of scurvy and how to prevent it), but overall a very interesting read. Loved the author's notes on how he came to writing about this subject, plus the *what ifs* he suggested and how what is now the western US and Canada might have evolved into something completely different than what it is now.

    We'll never know. Further reading, Washington Irving wrote about this expedition, and is available as a free download at Amazon and Project G.

    .

    Kindle copy obtained via library loan.

  • Dem

    I have an interest in this time in American history and in the men who forged their names in history as the men who built America and John Jacob Astor is without doubt one of the most interesting men of this time.

    The book Astoria is an unfolding adventure over the course of three years, from 1810 to 1813, a tale of the harrowing times in American histo

    I have an interest in this time in American history and in the men who forged their names in history as the men who built America and John Jacob Astor is without doubt one of the most interesting men of this time.

    The book Astoria is an unfolding adventure over the course of three years, from 1810 to 1813, a tale of the harrowing times in American history and shows the incredible hardship in the wilderness and at sea that these men (and women) endured in their quest to discover and establish empires. Over one hundred and forty members of the two advance parties that reached the West Coast, one crossing the Rockies the other rounding Cape Horn, nearly half died by violence and many lost their Sanity, The expedition successfully established Fort Astoria, a trading post on the Columbia River. Though the colony would be short-lived, it did however set the footprint for what would become know as the Oregan Trail.

    I listened to this one on audio and while the narrator was good I did feel I missed out on reading a hard copy of the book as to follow the route of the expedition I had to google maps which I believer are included with the hard copy and are really needed in order to follow and understand the book. The Hardcopy also has a list of characters and I felt this was also important as there quite a few people to keep track of.

    Having said that the book is an amazing and an interesting adventure story with unforgettable characters and a wonderful sense of time and place in the vast unexplored wilderness. I was totally horrified by the hardship the expedition endured to the clashes with the Indians.

    The book is very well written and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea I recommend it to those who enjoy adventure stories and for those who like reading about American history, I would however recommend purchasing a hard copy of this as opposed to audio version to get the full experience.

    .

  • Kerri Anne

    I was going to write a potentially long-winded and comprehensive review* of this book, but I realized upon finishing it last night: This book, in its truest and both literal and figurative senses, is about a bunch of dicks.

    It's about a bunch of hand-selected men and haphazardly formed groups of them setting out to create a new "empire" in the previously uncharted Coastal Northwest. One endlessly and expertly funded expedition, to be certain, but otherwise foolishly and terrifyingly led. It's ab

    I was going to write a potentially long-winded and comprehensive review* of this book, but I realized upon finishing it last night: This book, in its truest and both literal and figurative senses, is about a bunch of dicks.

    It's about a bunch of hand-selected men and haphazardly formed groups of them setting out to create a new "empire" in the previously uncharted Coastal Northwest. One endlessly and expertly funded expedition, to be certain, but otherwise foolishly and terrifyingly led. It's about Inland and Pacific Northwest history, and the way Astoria (and so many similar fur-trading-settlements-turned-towns) were founded, which is to say: On greed and guns. (Because the group possessing the most sophisticated and savage weaponry holds the proverbial cards at this "Manifest Destiny" table.) This now and always picturesque town lying next to the mighty Columbia River** was built upon a foundation of murder, savagery, survival, and endless hunger: For more power and wealth, more and more land and people to work it, more food, more animal pelts, more goods with which to trade, more...everything.

    The entire two-part expedition (one by land, one by sea) was also peppered with cannibalism, animal cruelty, rape, incest, pride, ridiculously poor decisions on how to treat human beings and especially Native Americans, and thus: hardship. So much hardship. And all for the overarching plan of trapping and taking so much more than what was needed, to supply China and Russia's affinity for animal fur, and various other material goods.

    Which of course so perfectly mirrors the way all of of America was founded.

    I will admit I'm happy to know some of this history, because my very sugar-coated American History classes definitely didn't cover a lot of these stories, and John Jacob Astor's expeditions to build his ill-conceived empire are so closely connected to so much of this region's (and this entire country's) history, which means passages of this book were definitely equal parts staggering and interesting.***

    But to know the Pacific Coast was founded so ruthlessly, so foolishly, and so lacking necessary forethought is a disturbing and upsetting reality to face. (What had I expected? I've no idea; I supposed I'd just never truly considered.)

    Also, the flow of this book is mostly terrible. It takes forever to get started, rambles and makes strange, unnecessary connections and conjectures in places, and then abruptly ends with the War of 1812 and Astor's death in New York, an entire country away from the "empire" he so valiantly tried to create at all costs.

    *Ha ha ha. Well, then. (Is this me *not* being long-winded? Probably.) I apparently had more to say about this book than originally anticipated. But, still: bunch of dicks.

    **Named for a WASP-y, East Coast ship whose captain and expedition leader ordered the slaughter and burning of an entire Indian village upon his first trip to the region.

    ***Astor's "overland expedition" included the French trappers who named the Tetons (French for "large teats", because: bunch of dicks, remember?). They also passed Daniel Boone standing on the Missouri River, Boone having retreated from the meager settlement he'd help found, disturbed by his belief that true wilderness was (already, back in the late 1700s/early 1800s) vastly and quickly disappearing. Oh, if Boone only knew the true wilderness destruction lying in wait. And John Day? Lost his damn mind during the admittedly insane and ill-managed overland expedition. Dude tried to shoot himself with two pistols at once, and somehow missed with both. So I suppose it's fitting he has an equally sad and theatrical dam named after him? (Looking into the history of names of places, monuments, and rivers, etc. is almost universally discouraging. Maybe what this country has always needed was less dicks, and more women like Marie Dorion.)

    [Allllmost three stars for being historically accurate, and in that way interesting, and for encouraging me to picture a West almost wholly devoid of people and laden instead with pristine wilderness.]

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