John Jacob Astor, the wealthy father of an American dynasty

John Jacob Astor was born on July 17, 1763 in Walldorf (Germany) and died on March 29, 1848 in New York. He became the US’s first millionaire and he was the father of the Astor dynasty.

He was the creator of the first trust in the country. He moved to England when he was a teenager, working as musical instrument manufacturer. Astor came to the United States after the War of Independence and built his business empire stretching to the Great Lakes region and Canada, which would later extend to the American West and the Pacific Rim. In the early 19th century, he branched out into New York City real estate and later became a famous benefactor of the arts.

In 1779, at age 16, he moved to London, where he changed his name and learned English while working for his older brother, George, in the manufacture of musical instruments. Once in the United States, he exchanged furs with Native Americans and in the 1780s began a fur business in New York City.

On September 19, 1785, Astor married Sarah Todd Cox, daughter of Scottish immigrants Adam Todd and Sarah Cox. She helped him in the practical details of his business. They had eight children.

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. He imported furs from Montreal to New York and sent them to Europe. In 1800, he had accumulated nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and had become one of the leading figures in the fur trade. In that same year, following the example of the Empress of China, the first American merchant ship in China belonged to Astor, and he traded furs, tea and sandalwood with Canton in China, and benefited greatly from it.

The US embargo Act of 1807, however, interrupted his trade business. With the permission of President Thomas Jefferson, Astor established the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. He financed the Astor Expedition in 1810-1812 to reach the outpost by land. The members of the expedition went on to discover South Pass, through which hundreds of thousands of settlers in the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails passed through the Rocky Mountains. Astor’s fur trading ventures were interrupted again when the British captured his trading posts.

Astor’s business recovered in 1817 after the US Congress approved the protectionist law banning foreign traders from US territories. The American Fur Trading Company went on to dominate the area around the Great Lakes. In 1822, Astor established the Astor House on Mackinac Island, and an extensive description with documents, diaries was given by Washington Irving in his Astoria travelogue. Astor’s trade connections spread across the globe and his ships were in all seas.

Astor began buying land in New York in 1799 and acquired a considerable amount along the waterfront. His interest in real estate became more systematic, more ambitious, and more calculating. In 1803, he bought 70 acres of farmland going west of Broadway on the Hudson River between 46th Street and 42nd. That same year and the following one, he bought stakes from vice president Aaron Burr.

In the 1830s, Astor predicted that the next big boom would be building New York, soon to emerge as one of the largest cities in the world. Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company, and all his other businesses, and used the money to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate. Astor correctly predicted the rapid growth of New York’s north on the island of Manhattan, buying more and more land beyond the then existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land. After retiring from his business, Astor spent the rest of his life as a patron of culture.

At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the richest person in the United States, leaving an estate worth at least $20 million.

NYC - New York Public Library - Astor Library_american financial titans_patrick dwyer
Image courtesy of Wally Gobetz at Flickr.com

In his will, he left $400,000 for the construction of the Astor Library for the people of New York (later consolidated with another library to form the Public Library of New York), and $ 50,000 for a charity in his German hometown, Walldorf. Astor left most of his fortune to his second son William Backhouse and his mentally unstable eldest son, John Jr.

Astor left enough money to care for John Jr. for the rest of his life.

The pair of marble lions that decorate the entrance of the New York Public Library on 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 known as Lord Astor and Lady Lenox.

His son, William Backhouse Astor (1792-1875), greatly expanded the family real estate business, building more than 700 stores and homes in the city. One of his great-grandchildren, John Jacob Astor IV, was one of the few wealthy passengers who died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

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