John Jacob Astor

America's First Millionaire Made His First Fortune In the Fur Trade

Engraved portrait of John Jacob Astor
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest man in America in the early 19th century, and when he died in 1848 his fortune was estimated to be at least $20 million, an astounding sum for the time.

Astor had arrived in America as a poor German immigrant, and his determination and business sense led him to eventually create a monopoly in the fur trade. He diversified into real estate in New York City, and his fortune increased as the city grew.

Early Life

John Jacob Astor was born on July 17, 1763 in the village of Waldorf, in Germany. His father was a butcher, and as a boy John Jacob would accompany him to jobs butchering cattle.

While a teenager, Astor earned enough money at various jobs in Germany to enable him to relocate to London, where an older brother was living. He spent three years in England, learning the language and picking up any information he could about his ultimate destination, the North American colonies which were rebelling against Britain.

In 1783, after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Revolutionary War, Astor decided to sail to the young nation of the United States.

Astor left England in November 1783, having bought musical instruments, seven flutes, which he intended to sell in America. His ship reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in January 1784, but the ship became stuck in ice and it would be two months before it was safe for the passengers to land.

Chance Encounter Led to Learning About the Fur Trade

While languishing aboard ship, Astor met a fellow passenger who had traded for furs with the Indians in North America. Legend has it that Astor quizzed the man extensively on the details of fur trading, and by the time he set foot on American soil Astor had resolved to enter the fur business.

John Jacob Astor eventually reached New York City, where another brother was living, in March 1784. By some accounts, he did enter the fur trade almost immediately and soon returned to London to sell a shipment of furs.

By 1786 Astor had opened a small shop on Water Street in lower Manhattan, and throughout the 1790s he kept expanding his fur business. He was soon exporting furs to London and to China, which was emerging as a huge market for the pelts of American beavers.

By 1800 it was estimated that Astor had amassed nearly a quarter of a million dollars, a considerable fortune for the time.

Astor's Business Continued to Grow

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned from the Northwest in 1806 Astor realized he could expand into the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase. And, it should be noted, the official reason for Lewis and Clark's voyage was to help the American fur trade expand.

In 1808 Astor combined a number of his business interests into the American Fur Company. Astor's company, with trading posts throughout the Midwest and Northwest, would monopolize the fur business for decades, at a time when beaver hats were considered the height of fashion in America and Europe.

In 1811 Astor financed an expedition to the coast of Oregon, where his employees founded Fort Astoria, an outpost at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Coast, but it was destined to fail due to various hardships and the War of 1812. Fort Astoria eventually passed into British hands.

While the war doomed Fort Astoria, Astor made money in the final year of the war by helping the United States government finance its operations. Later critics, including the legendary editor Horace Greeley, accused him of having profiteered in war bonds.

Astor Accumulated Vast Real Estate Holdings

In the first decade of the 19th century Astor had realized that New York City would continue to grow, and he began buying up real estate in Manhattan. He amassed vast property holdings in New York and the surrounding area. Astor would eventually be called "the city's landlord."

Having grown tired of the fur trade, and realizing it was too vulnerable to changes in fashion, Astor sold all his interests in the fur business in June 1834. He then concentrated on real estate, while also dabbling in philanthropy.

Legacy of John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor died, at the age of 84, in his house in New York City on March 29, 1848. He was by far the richest man in America. It was estimated that Astor had a fortune of at least $20 million, and he is generally considered the first American multimillionaire.

Most of his fortune was left to his son William Backhouse Astor, who continued to administer the family business and philanthropic endeavors.

John Jacob Astor's will also included a bequest for a public library. The Astor Library was for many years an institution in New York City, and its collection became the foundation for the New York Public Library.

A number of American towns were named for John Jacob Astor, including Astoria, Oregon, the site of Fort Astoria. New Yorkers know the Astor Place subway stop in lower Manhattan, and there is a neighborhood in the borough of Queens called Astoria.

Perhaps the most famous instance of the Astor name is the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. John Jacob Astor's grandsons, who were feuding in the 1890s, opened two lavish hotels in New York City, the Astoria, named for the family, and the Waldorf, named for John Jacob Astor's native village in Germany. The hotels, which were located at the present site of the Empire State Building, were later combined into the Waldorf-Astoria. The name lives on with the current Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue in New York City.

Gratitude is expressed to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the illustration of John Jacob Astor.

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McNamara, Robert. "John Jacob Astor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). John Jacob Astor. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "John Jacob Astor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).