Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John Jacob Astor,
the Monarch of the Fur Industry

In the year 1779 a sturdy German lad of sixteen might have been seen trudging along a country road near his native village of Waldorf, a small bundle of clothes over his shoulder, and German coins worth about two dollars in his pocket. With this slender equipment he was going out to seek his fortune in the great world. His father was a butcher, poor, shiftless, and good for nothing, and the boy had set out to do something for himself.

Though he had very little money, he had something of more value. He was strong and hearty, had a good, plain education, was not afraid of work, had a head full of common sense, and was free from bad habits. He tells us this: "Soon after I left the village I sat down under a tree to rest, and there I made three resolutions—to be honest, to be industrious, and not to gamble." Three very good ones, most people will say. Such was the equipment with which John Jacob Astor left home to win his way in the world. To-day his name and that of his native village are commemorated in the Waldorf-Astoria, the greatest hotel in New York.

With no thought of great hotels in his young brain, the boy made his way along. He went down the Rhine on a raft, and got ten dollars at the river's mouth for his help. One of his brothers was in London, a maker of musical instruments, and with him the young adventurer stopped for some years, learning a good deal about instrument making, and how to speak English. At length, in 1783, with a good suit of clothes and seventy-five dollars in money, he set out for America, spending one-third of his money for a steerage passage and another third for seven German flutes from his brother. With these flutes for a stock in trade and twenty-five dollars in money, he landed at Baltimore in March, 1784.



On the ship he met a German fur-trader, a man who had made much money in the business and who advised young Astor to go into the same line. The boy went to New York, where he had another brother engaged in butchering, and with his aid and that of his German friend he got a position in a fur-store, where he set himself to work to learn all about furs. He studied their qualities and value and the methods of curing and preserving them. The trappers who came to the store were ready to tell him all about fur-bearing animals, their modes of life and the best way of taking them. He was constantly looking around and asking questions.

A diligent and intelligent worker, his employer got to trust him, rapidly advancing him in position, and finally sending him to Montreal to buy furs. This was an important errand. The German fur-trader had told him what to do. He was to buy trinkets, go among the Indians, bargain with them, and get his furs at first hand. When he got back to New York he surprised and pleased his employer by the great number of fur-skins he had bought with the money given him.

Two years after coming to New York Astor felt that he knew the business well enough to start for himself. He took a small store on Water Street, borrowed some money from his brother to stock it with such things as the Indians liked, and began to buy. When the peltries did not come in fast enough he set out himself with a pack of trinkets and visited the Indians and trappers of Central New York, with whom he usually made a good trade. Several such journeys were made each year, and on his return he would cure the skins and prepare them for market himself.

After some years of dealing with New York traders, he took ship to London, where furs sold for much more than could be got for them in America. He made arrangements with good houses there to ship furs to them, thus greatly increasing his profits. He also engaged to sell his brother's musical instruments in America, and in time built up a profitable trade in these goods. At home he lived over his store. He had married a New York girl who was as wide awake as himself, and who grew to know as much about furs as he did and to be his match in a business deal.

This was the way that John Jacob Astor's great fortune began. He was now making money rapidly. Instead of going out himself, he employed agents to buy furs and ship them to New York, and as soon as possible he bought a ship, in which he sent his furs to London. The little trudger on the German highway was fast growing rich. The beaver skins that he bought for a dollar apiece from the New York trappers brought more than six dollars apiece in London, and the money got for them was invested in British goods on which he made another profit in New York. From Europe his ships made their way as far as China, where large prices were to be had for furs, and from which they brought back teas and silks. A voyage to China would net him a profit of thirty thousand dollars; sometimes much more.

When he had been in business fifteen years he moved his store to 233 Broadway—where the Astor House now stands. He was now worth a quarter of a million of dollars, but was the same cautious and enterprising business man as when he began. When the treaty of 1795 was made, which fixed the northern frontier of the United States, Astor took quick advantage of it. It limited the field of the Hudson Bay and other Canadian fur companies, and Astor soon had his agents out buying furs all along the Great Lakes, and far to the west of the lakes.

He planned a great scheme of setting up a line of trading posts across the country, by way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, as far as the Pacific, and in 1811 he founded the town of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia. It was his design to make this a starting point for his vessels, supplying China with furs directly from the Pacific coast, instead of following the long, roundabout course from New York. He proposed to make one of the Hawaiian Islands an intermediate station.

This ambitious scheme fell through from the dishonesty of his agents, who played him false and betrayed his plans to a British fur company, which got possession of Astoria and the Oregon business for a trifle. Astor's loss was more than a million dollars, but he bore it calmly.

A shrewd, far-seeing, adventurous man was John Jacob Astor. His business judgment amounted to genius, and he rarely if ever made a mistake. He gave incessant attention to his business, and not until he was quite wealthy would he leave his store or ware-house before the close of the day. Then he got to leaving at two o'clock in the afternoon, and, after an early dinner, taking a horseback ride, of which he was very fond. His other favorite recreation was the theatre. He was plain and simple in all his habits, and the strict economy with which he began clung to him long after it had ceased to be necessary.

He grew to be very rich, not wholly in the fur trade, though he made about two million dollars in this. But a greater source of wealth was his shrewd purchases of real estate in the upper part of New York. If he bought a piece of land he built upon it and made it pay by rents. These rents he used to buy new property. He had an instinctive judgment of the best localities for an increase in value by the growth of population, and by holding on to his properties he added many millions to his estate. The Astor estate came in time to have as many as seven thousand houses in New York City.

During the last twenty years of Astor's life he lived in quiet retirement, employing business agents to look after his property, which grew to be worth at least twenty million dollars. Some of this money he gave away. All his relatives were placed in comfort. For the poor of Waldorf, his native place, he gave fifty thousand dollars. The Astor Library, founded by him, was endowed with four hundred thousand dollars in land and funds. He made other public gifts, but the great bulk of his immense estate was left to his eldest son, William B. Astor. Since then it has been sedulously kept together and increased, until its value has become immense.

Mr. Astor's great success was largely due to his remarkable business powers, his temperate habits, punctuality, perseverance, care that no money should be wasted and no enterprise undertaken until thoroughly understood. This don was daring and enterprising in his operations He was prompt in all engagements, and cool and cheerful even under severe losses. Always an early riser, not until he was fifty-five years of age did he ever fail to appear at his store before seven o'clock in the morning.

Such is the record of the boy who made wise resolutions as he sat resting by the wayside when he set out to make his fortune. He kept those resolutions strictly, and was always prudent, sagacious, tactful, quick in grasping and courageous in carrying out an enterprise. He was never liberal, being very careful and close in money dealings, the gifts which he finally made being given after his wealth was so great as to render them matters of small moment to him. Death came to this remarkable man on the 29th of March, 1848.