When the German-born, New York-based entrepreneur John Jacob Astor turned his capitalist sights on the great western expanse of North America, he went all-in:
The scale of the plan was staggering. As of this date, 1810, the entire tradable wealth of largely unexplored western North America lay in its furs. There was no gold. There were no commercial fisheries. There was no wheat grown or timber harvested. Astor, this still-young and very ambitious immigrant, had conceived a plan that funneled the entire tradable wealth of the westernmost sector of the North American continent north of Mexico through his own hands. It was, as the early accounts described it, “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known.”
This is the beginning of the story Peter Stark tells in his new book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire. On one level this is a tale of adventure: the rollicking exploits of the bold (and sometimes hapless) men who risked their lives and livelihoods in an unforgiving land. But in the larger sense, this is the story about America’s early imperial ambitions, the interplay of a young government and a big business, and the first “Pacific pivot” of a what had been an Atlantic nation.