John Jacob Astor
|John Jacob Astor|
Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis (c. 1825)
|Born||Johann Jakob Astor
July 17, 1763
Walldorf, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
|Died||March 29, 1848
New York City, U.S.
|Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan|
|Residence||New York City, U.S.|
|Nationality||German; U.S. from 1789|
|Occupation||Merchant, businessman, investor, fur trader|
|Known for||First multi-millionaire in the United States|
|Net worth|| Estimated US $110.1 billion in 2006 dollars
US $20 million at the time of his death (approximately 1/107 of US GNP)
|Spouse(s)||Sarah Cox Todd
(m. 1785–1842; her death)
|Parents||Johann Jacob Astor
Maria Magdalena Vorfelder
|Relatives||John Jacob Astor III (grandson)
William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (grandson)
Charles Astor Bristed (grandson)
John Jacob Astor (July 17, 1763 – March 29, 1848), born Johann Jakob Astor, was a German-born American businessman, merchant, fur trader, and investor who was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the United States. He was the creator of the first trust in America. He moved to England as a teenager, where he worked as a musical instrument manufacturer. Astor later went to the United States after the American Revolutionary War and built a fur-trading empire that extended to the Great Lakes region and Canada, and later expanded into the American West and Pacific coast. In the early 19th century, he diversified into New York City real estate and later became a famed patron of the arts.
Early life and family
John Jacob Astor was born in Walldorf, near Heidelberg in the old Palatinate which became part of the Duchy of Baden in 1803 (now in Rhein-Neckar-Kreis in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany). He was the youngest son of butcher Johann Jacob Astor (July 7, 1724 – April 18, 1816) and Maria Magdalena Vorfelder (1730–1766). His three elder brothers were George (born Georg) (April 28, 1752 – December 1813), Henry (born Heinrich) (1754–1833), and Melchior (1759–1829). Astor's career began in Germany, where he worked as an assistant in his father's business, as a dairy salesman. In 1779, at age 16, he moved to London, where he anglicized his name and learned English while working for his eldest brother George, manufacturing musical instruments.
He arrived in the United States in March 1784, just after the end of the Revolutionary War. His second brother Henry preceded him to New York, establishing a butcher shop with which Astor was initially involved. He traded furs with Native Americans and in the late 1780s started a fur goods shop in New York City. He also became the New York agent of his brother's musical instrument business. Henry was also a horse racing enthusiast, and purchased a thoroughbred named Messenger, who had been brought from England to America in 1788. The horse became the founding sire of all Standardbred horses in the United States today.
On September 19, 1785, Astor married Sarah Cox Todd (1762–1842), the daughter of Scottish immigrants Adam Todd and Sarah Cox. Although she brought him a dowry of only $300, she possessed a frugal mind and a business judgment that he declared better than that of most merchants, and she assisted him in the practical details of his business. They had eight children:
- Magdalen Astor (1788–1832), who married Rev. John Bristed (1778–1855), mother of Charles Astor Bristed (1820–1874)
- Sarah Todd Astor (1790–1790), stillborn
- John Jacob Astor, Jr. (1791–1869), sickly and mentally unstable
- William Backhouse Astor, Sr. (1792–1875), who married Margaret Rebecca Armstrong (1800–1872), daughter of Senator John Armstrong, Jr. (1758–1843) and Alida Livingston (1761–1822) of the Livingston family, father of seven children including John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890) and William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (1829–1892)
- Dorothea Astor (1795–1874)
- Henry Astor II (1797–1799), died in infancy
- Eliza Astor (1801–1838)
- unnamed son (1802–1802), died within a few days of being born
Fortune from fur trade
Astor took advantage of the Jay Treaty between England and the United States in 1794, which opened new markets in Canada and the Great Lakes region. Then in London, Astor at once made a contract with the North West Company, who from Montreal rivaled the trade interests of the Hudson's Bay Company, then out of London. He imported furs from Montreal to New York and shipped them to Europe. By 1800, he had amassed almost a quarter of a million dollars, and had become one of the leading figures in the fur trade. In 1800, following the example of the Empress of China, the first American trading vessel to China, Astor traded furs, teas, and sandalwood with Canton in China, and greatly benefited from it.
The U.S. Embargo Act in 1807, however, disrupted his import/export business. With the permission of President Thomas Jefferson, Astor established the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. He later formed subsidiaries: the Pacific Fur Company, and the Southwest Fur Company (in which Canadians had a part), in order to control fur trading in the Columbia River and Great Lakes areas.
His Columbia River trading post at Fort Astoria (established in April 1811) was the first United States community on the Pacific coast. He financed the overland Astor Expedition in 1810–12 to reach the outpost. Members of the expedition were to discover South Pass, through which hundreds of thousands of settlers on the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails passed through the Rocky Mountains.
Astor's fur trading ventures were again disrupted, when the English captured his trading posts during the War of 1812. In 1816, he joined the opium smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchased ten tons of Turkish opium, then shipped the contraband item to Canton on the packet ship Macedonian. Astor later left the China opium trade and sold solely to England.
Astor's business rebounded in 1817 after the U.S. Congress passed a protectionist law that barred foreign traders from U.S. territories. The American Fur Company came to dominate trading in the area around the Great Lakes. In 1822, Astor established the Astor House on Mackinac Island as headquarters for the reorganized American Fur Company, making the island a metropolis of the fur trade. A lengthy description based on documents, diaries etc. was given by Washington Irving in his travelogue Astoria. Astor's commercial connections extended over the entire globe, and his ships were found in every sea.
In 1804, Astor purchased from Vice President Aaron Burr, Jr. what remained of a 99-year lease on property in Manhattan. At the time, Burr was serving under President Thomas Jefferson and desperately needed the purchase price of $62,500. The lease was to run until 1866. Astor began subdividing the land into nearly 250 lots and subleased them. His conditions were that the tenant could do whatever they wish with the lots for twenty-one years, after which they must renew the lease or Astor would take back the lot.
Real estate and retirement
Astor began buying land in New York in 1799 and acquired sizable holdings along the waterfront. After the start of the 19th century, flush with China trade profits, his interest in real estate became more systematic, more ambitious, and more calculating. In 1803, he bought a 70 acre farm that ran west of Broadway to the Hudson river between 42nd and 46th streets. That same year, and the following year, he bought considerable holdings from the disgraced Aaron Burr.
In the 1830s, Astor foresaw that the next big boom would be the build-up of New York, which would soon emerge as one of the world’s greatest cities. Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company, as well as all his other ventures, and used the money to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate. Astor correctly predicted New York's rapid growth northward on Manhattan Island, purchasing more and more land beyond the then-existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land, and instead let others pay rent to use it.
At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. His estimated net worth, if calculated as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time, would have been equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars, making him the fifth-richest person in American history. An estimate based on inflation from the legally-set American gold standard rate of $21 per ounce in the 1850s would result in a much more conservative net worth of $1.272 billion in 2011 dollars.
In his will, he left $400,000 to build the Astor Library for the New York public (later consolidated with other libraries to form New York Public Library), and $50,000 for a poorhouse and orphanage in his German hometown, Walldorf. The Astorhaus is now a museum honoring the city's ancestor and a renowned fest hall for marriages. Further Astor donated $25,000 to the German Society of the City of New York, whose chairman he was from 1837 until 1841. Also, $30,000 were to be used for a professor's chair in German literature at Columbia University, but due to differences with the deanship, this donation was erased from the testament.
Astor left the bulk of his fortune to his second son William since his eldest son John Jr. was sickly and mentally unstable. Astor left enough money to care for John Jr. for the rest of his life.
Astor is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in the New York City borough of Manhattan, because many members of his family were members of that church despite Astor remaining a member of the local Reformed congregation to his death. Herman Melville used Astor as a symbol of the earliest fortunes in New York in his novella Bartleby, the Scrivener.
The pair of marble lions that sit by the entrance of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after Astor and James Lenox, who founded the library. Then, they were called Lord Astor and Lady Lenox (both lions are males). Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed them "Patience" and "Fortitude" during the Great Depression.
In popular culture
- Astor family
- Astoria, Oregon
- Astoria, Queens
- Astor Place
- Astor Row
- List of wealthiest historical figures
- List of richest Americans in history
- List of Freemasons
- Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
- "The All-Time Richest Americans". Forbes.com. September 14, 2007.
- Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Michael (1996), The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, p. xi, ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8, OCLC 33818143
- Reformed Congregation James Parton, Life of John Jacob Astor: To which is appended a Copy of his last will (The American News Comp., 1865), pg. 81
- Jacob was always written with a 'c' in the records of Walldorf's Reformed Church, but Walldorf's Rev. Georg Speyer spelled the name with a 'k' in his laudatio for Astor's 50th death-ceremony and from then on the name remained that way in Astor's hometown. (see Herbert C. Ebeling. Johann Jakob Astor zum 150. Todestag, 1998, p. 2).
- Johnson, Rossiter (ed.) (1904). The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Boston: The Biographical Society. pp. unpaginated. Retrieved 2009-06-07. "ASTOR, John Jacob, merchant, was born at Walldorf near Heidelberg, Germany, July 17, 1763"
- "John Jacob Astor". Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Harper's Magazine Co.) 30: 308–323. 1865. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- "Maria Vorfelder". MyTrees.com.
- Herbert C. Ebeling: Johann Jakob Astor - Ein Lebensbild. pp. 63-69.
- "Astor, John Jacob. An American merchant". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- Herbert C. Ebeling. Johann Jakob Astor - Ein Lebensbild, p. 141.
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Astor, John Jacob". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
- "Famous Masons". MWGLNY. January 2014.
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Astor, John Jacob, American merchant". Encyclopedia Americana.
- "The Opium Kings: Opium Throughout History". Frontline. PBS. Retrieved September 4, 2011.
- Burrows, Edwin G.; Wallace, Mike (1998). Gotham A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-19-511634-2
- In Fortune Magazine's richest Americans, with an estimated wealth at death of $20,000,000, Astor's Wealth/GDP ratio equalled 1/107.
- Life, December 12, 1960, p.16
- Based on a New York spot price $1,336 on January 31, 2011
- "Warum heißen die so? Heute: FC Astoria Walldorf" (German). Fussball.de. December 8, 2011. Retrieved December 9, 2011.
- Ebeling, Herbert C. Johann Jakob Astor zum 150. Todestag. Walldorf: Astor-Stiftung, 1998.
- Ebeling, Herbert C. Johann Jakob Astor - Ein Lebensbild. Walldorf: Astor-Stiftung, 1998.
- Ebeling, Herbert C. W. O. Horn: Johann Jacob Astor - Ein Lebensbild aus dem Volke, für das Volk und seine Jugend. Walldorf: Astor-Stiftung, 2004.
- Smith, Arthur Douglas Howden. John Jacob Astor, Landlord Of New York. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1929.
- Youngman, Anna. "The Fortune of John Jacob Astor," Journal of Political Economy, Part 1: vol. 16, no. 6 (June 1908), pp. 345–368; Part 2: vol. 16, no. 7 (July 1908), pp. 436–441; Part 3: vol. 16, no. 8 (Oct. 1908), pp. 514–530. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 in JSTOR.
- Waldrup, Carole Chandler. More Colonial Women: 25 Pioneers of Early America. McFarland, 2004
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: John Jacob Astor|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Jacob Astor.|
- John Jacob Astor Business Records at Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School
- The Waldorf Astoria Hotel
- The "Astorhaus" in Germany, now a museum
- German Society of the City of New York
- Astoria, Author Washington Irving full text (pdf)
- Frontline show
- Texts on Wikisource:
- "Astor, John Jacob, an American merchant". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
- "Astor, John Jacob, American merchant". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.
- "Astor, John Jacob". The New Student's Reference Work. 1914.
- "Astor, John Jacob". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
- "Astor, John Jacob". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. 1907.
- "Astor, John Jacob. An American merchant". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- "Astor, John Jacob". The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
- "Astor, John Jacob". Encyclopaedia Britannica 2 (9th ed.). 1878.
|Richest man in the United States
William Backhouse Astor, Sr.