Review of Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark Rating ****
If I had the ability to travel back in time, exploring the Western United States in the early 19th century would be high on my list. After reading this book, however, I would be careful of whom I chose as my traveling companions.
This book tells the story of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to set up a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. He, along with the help of Thomas Jefferson, financed two groups to travel from the east coast of America to the west coast. One group traveled by ship. The second group traveled overland across the Rockies. Both groups endured hardships.
The one thing that stands out in the two competing groups of men is the difference one or two men can make in the success or failure of a mission. All it takes is one arrogant asshole to endanger not only the original group but all that follow.
The sea-going group is headed by Captain Thorn, a Captain Bligh-like character. He gets to the Columbia River first and begins the process of building Astoria. It was an ostentatious plan. For all the untapped resources that the Western United States had to offer, animal furs were the most sought-after good. Astor planned to have trading posts set up in the interior of the U.S., and have those furs shipped upriver to Astoria, where they would then be loaded onto ships destined for China and elsewhere. The return trip would be loaded with goods in high demand among Americans.
The overland group was headed by Wilson Price Hunt. Hunt was a better leader than Thorn, but he didn’t have any wilderness experience. As a result, he underestimated the difficulties he might encounter along the way. He didn’t resort to cannibalization, but he came close.
Both groups underestimated the determination and bravery of the Indians they encountered. One of the more dramatic scenes in the book is the battle that took place aboard the Tonquin and the surprise that awaited the conquering Indians.
The beauty of the majestic Rockies and the Siera Nevadas is lost on men too weak from starvation to admire. all of the men faced dangers from the elements, Indians, scurvy, and food scarcity. Once they reached Astoria, the grand vision sold to them by Astor was replaced by the bleakness of a wilderness post that lacked infrastructure, resources, and supplies. The fate of most of Astor’s men was death and suffering. A few lucky souls found refuge on the sun-drenched Hawaiian Islands.
I love exploring some of the same territory described in this book, but I’ll do it on designated trails and return to my VRBO at the end of the day.