History Timeline 1830s

Photo above: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. First mentioned by Parker in 1835, and carries an inscription on the rock with the names of early trappers and explorers. Photo William H. Jackson, circa 1870. Right: Painting by Percy Moran, 1912, reflects the intensity of the battle of the Alamo. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.


U.S. Timeline - The 1830s

Conquering the West

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  • Timeline

  • 1834 - Detail

    John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant, was commonly known as the richest man in the United States. He was the organizer of the American Fur Company, which he sold in 1834.

    John Jacob Astor

    Astor had been in a state of accumulation throughout his life. He began the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. He added subsidiaries the Pacific Fur Company on June 23, 1810 to battle the British fur companies in the disputed northwest, and the Southwest Fur Company to compete along the Great Lakes and in the midwest.

    Born in Walldorf, Germany in July 17, 1763, he emigrated to England in 1779 to work in his uncle's musical instrument shop, then to New York in 1784 after the American Revolution. He met a Canadian fur trader on the journey, became intrigued, and began trading fur to Europe via New York while continuing to sell his uncle's instruments. He opened his first fur trade shop in New York in 1790. It was not yet the year 1800, and he was already becoming a success. The passage of Jay's Treaty, giving the United State more territory in the Great Lakes region from the British, even if the deliberations over just what that meant would eventually foster part of the reasons for the War of 1812. Add in the Louisiana Purchase and you had a nation doubling its territory.

    Astor was friends with Thomas Jefferson and in no mood to wait once those treaties were made. Jefferson was pleased with Astor's goals, as they dovetailed well with Jefferson's vision of a nation from sea to sea. "I learn with great satisfaction the disposition of our merchants to form into companies for understanding the Indian trade within our own territories," Thomas Jefferson.

    Jefferson kept in contact with John Jacob Astor as Astor began and expanded the multiple companies from 1808 to 1810. Astor updated Jefferson in 1812 about their movement west, putting them in competition with the British and Canadian North West and Hudson's Bay Company. The next year Jefferson responded back, "I learn with great pleasure the progress you have made towards an establishment on the Columbia River."

    Astor was not just prospering from the fur trade, he traded with China, bought and sold New York real estate, and had even bought the Richmond Hill estate of Aaron Burr after Aaron Burr's duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

    While the War of 1812 hurt the fur trade, it also caused the United States to have financial trouble. Astor was consulted and thought that there should be a Second Bank of the United States. His opinion was so well thought of, the Senate Executive Journal in 1816 states the following ...

    "I nominate ... John Jacob Astor, a citizen of the United States, residing at New York, in the State of New York, to be five of the Directors of the Bank of the United States, in pursuance of the 9th section of the act, entitled "An act to incorporate the subscribers to the Bank of the United States."

    By 1822, Astor House was built on Mackinac Island, where he headquartered a reorganized American Fur Company. There was a network of trading posts with three major depots; Fort Union 1829 at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Fort Pierre 1832 at the confluence of the Cheyenne and Missouri Rivers, and Fort Laramie (1834) on the North Platte River. That network, per year, was selling twenty-five thousand bison robes from the Great Plains.

    However, with competitors on the rise, John Jacob Astor sold the Northern Department of his company to Ramsay Crooks and the Western Department of the American Fur Company to the St. Louis firm of Pratte, Chouteau and Company in 1834. With this sale and the monies deposited for John Jacob Astor, he became, in all probability, although there was no Forbes list at the time, the richest man in the United States. It is said that he was the first multi-millionaire in the nation's history.

    Astor After 1834

    While the American Fur Company went bankrupt in 1842, Astor diversified in the Manhattan real estate market. He had been involved in New York City real estate since 1799, including plots of land along the waterfront that were increasing in value. In 1803, he bought an seventy acre farm that ran west of Broadway between 42nd and 46th Streets. Much of the money from the American Fur Company went into the purchase of large chunks of Manhattan, predicting its growth north, even beyond the then city limits. He rarely built on the properties, but rented them to others for their use.

    After retirement, John Jacob Astor became a patron of culture and the arts, including that of John James Audubon. Upon his death, his estate was worth $20 million, nearly 0.9% of the nation's GDP. That would calculate to an estimated (2020) $655 million today.

    Photo above: John Jacob Astor by artist John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1825. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Washington, Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Buildings of the American Fur Company at Fond du Lac, 1827. Image source: Library of Congress. Info Source: Wikipedia Commons; "A Fortune Made from Fur; John Jacob Astor, 2012, Ellen Terrell. Library of Congress; Economic-historian.com; Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

    American Fur Company

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