John Jacob Astor lived through1763-1848. He was afur trader, businessman, and real estate investor.
Astor began life as one of twelve children of apoor German butcher and died the richest man inAmerica. The making of a great fortune was the aimand purpose of Astor’s life, and he accomplishedit by dominating the American fur trade andinvesting his profits in the real estate ofburgeoning New York City. Shortly before hisdeath, Astor was asked if he would have doneanything differently with his life. He is supposedto have replied that his only regret was nothaving bought all of Manhattan. Astor was born inthe small town of Waldorf, near Heidelberg,Germany.At twenty he followed his older brotherHenry to New York, arriving with hardly a penny.He became a clerk to a fur trader and masteredthat business quickly.
His employer was impressedwith Astor’s intelligence and energy and entrustedhim with more and more responsibilities, includingbuying furs upstate and selling them in London.Before long Astor was operating on his own accountand prospered at once. He began putting hisprofits into Manhattan real estate, investingnearly $7,000, a large sum of money in those days,between 1789 and 1791. Astor’s strategy was tobuy, very cheaply, land that lay far beyond thedeveloped area of the city and then to wait forthe city’s rapid growth to reach his lots.
In1803, for instance, he paid $25,000 for seventyacres located more than an hour’s ride north ofwhat were then the city’s physical limits. By the1870s the land was worth $20 million to the Astorfamily.Today the area is known as Times Square.
Because China was an excellent market for furs in1800, Astor entered the China trade and earnedlarge profits from it, often as much as $50,000from a single voyage. In 1808 he established theAmerican Fur Company to exploit the newly acquiredLouisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. Hebuilt a trading post at the mouth of Oregon’sColumbia River in 1811, naming it Astoria. Thisgrand scheme fell apart when one of Astor’s shipswas lost at sea and the War of 1812 cost him thesupport of his allies in Canada.
It was Astor’sone great failure. Regardless, Astor turned theWar of 1812 to good account when he made thefederal government, desperate for cash, a largeloan, paying only about forty cents on the dollarfor government bonds.As always it was theincrease in his fortune that mattered to Astor;patriotism did not deter him from driving any butthe hardest of bargains. By the end of the 1820sAstor had a near monopoly of the American furtrade, but he realized that because of thevagaries of fashion and rising costs, the tradewas becoming less profitable. He sold out all hisfur interests in 1834 and spent the last fourteenyears of his life speculating in New York realestate. When Astor died in New York, he left anestimated $40 million, a sum several times largerthan any other American fortune of the day.
Heleft nearly all of it to his son, but gave$400,000 to establish the Astor Library, one ofthree that would later merge to form today’s greatNew York Public Library. Bibliography:.