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John Jacob Astor (July 17, 1763 – March 29, 1848), born Johann Jakob or Johann Jacob Astor, was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the United Statesmarker. He was the creator of the first trust in America, from which he made his fortune in fur trading, real estate, and opium.

From humble origins in Germanymarker as a flute maker with his brother George, they emigrated to Londonmarker and John Jacob then went to the Americamarker following the American Revolutionary War. He built a fur-trading empire that extended to the Great Lakesmarker region and Canadamarker, and later expanded into the American West and Pacific coast. In the early 1800s he diversified into New York Citymarker real estate and later became a famed patron of the arts.

At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. According to a Forbes article, his estimated net worth as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time would be equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollar, making him the fourth wealthiest person in American history.


Early life

John Jacob Astor's ancestors were Waldensian refugees from Savoy. He was born in Walldorfmarker, near Heidelbergmarker in the old Palatinate which became part of Baden during the 19th century, Germany (currently in the Rhein-Neckar districtmarker). His father (Johann Jacob Astor) was a butcher. The son John Jacob Astor learned English in Londonmarker while working for his brother, George Astor, manufacturing musical instruments.

Astor arrived in the United States in March 1784, just after the end of the Revolutionary War. He traded furs with Indians and then he started a fur goods shop in New York Citymarker in the late 1780s.

He married Sarah Todd on September 19, 1785 and once said of her that she had the best business sense of anyone he knew.

Fortune from fur trade

Astor took advantage of the Jay Treaty between Great Britainmarker and the United States in 1794 which opened new markets in Canadamarker and the Great Lakesmarker region. By 1800 he had amassed almost a quarter of a million dollars, and had become one of the leading figures in the fur trade. In 1800, following the example of the Empress of China, the first American trading vessel to Chinamarker, Astor traded furs, teas and sandalwood with Cantonmarker in China, and greatly benefited from it. The US Embargo Act in 1807, however, disrupted his import/export business. With the permission of President Jefferson, Astor established the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. He later formed subsidiaries: the Pacific Fur Company, and the Southwest Fur Company (in which Canadians had a part), in order to control fur trading in the Columbia River and Great Lakesmarker areas.

His Columbia River trading post at Fort Astoriamarker (established in April 1811) was the first United States community on the Pacific coast. He financed the overland Astor Expedition in 1810–12 to reach the outpost. Members of the expedition were to discover South Passmarker, through which hundreds of thousands settlers on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails passed through the Rocky Mountains.

Astor's fur trading ventures were disrupted when the British captured his trading posts during the War of 1812. His business rebounded in 1817 after the U.S. Congress passed a protectionist law that barred foreign traders from U.S. territories. The American Fur Company came to dominate trading in the area around the Great Lakes. In 1822, Asto established the Astor House on Mackinac Islandmarker as headquarters for the reorganized American Fur Company, making the island a metropolis of the fur trade. A lengthy description based on documents, diaries etc. was given by Washington Irving in his travelogue Astoria.

In 1804, Astor purchased from Aaron Burr what remained of a 99-year lease on property in Manhattan. At the time, Burr was serving as vice president under Thomas Jefferson and desperately needed the purchase price of $62,500. The lease was to run until 1866. Astor began subdividing the land into nearly 250 lots and subleased them. His conditions were that the tenant could do whatever they wish with the lots for twenty-one years, after which they must renew the lease or Astor would take back the lot.

Real estate and retirement

In the 1830s, John Jacob Astor foresaw that the next big boom would be the build-up of New York, which would soon emerge as one of the world’s greatest cities. Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company, as well as all his other ventures, and used the money to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate. Predicting the rapid growth northward on Manhattan Islandmarker, Astor purchased more and more land beyond the current city limits. Astor rarely built on his land, and instead let others pay rent to use it.

Post-fur trading

After retiring from his business, Astor spent the rest of his life as a patron of culture. He supported the ornithologist John James Audubon, the poet/writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the presidential campaign of Henry Clay.

At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million ($ million in today's dollars); he has been estimated to be the third richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. In his will, he left $400,000 to build the Astor Librarymarker for the New York public (later consolidated with other libraries to form New York Public Librarymarker), as well as $50,000 for a poorhouse in his German hometown, Walldorf.

Astor left the bulk of his fortune to his second son, William Backhouse Astor, Sr. His eldest son, John Jacob II, had a mental disability and Astor left enough money to care for him for the rest of his life.

John Jacob Astor is buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in the New York Citymarker borough of Manhattanmarker. Herman Melville used Astor as a symbol of the earliest fortunes in New York in his novella Bartleby, the Scrivener.

The pair of marble lions that sit by the entrance of the New York Public Librarymarker at 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 called Lord Astor and Lady Lenox (both lions are males). Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia renamed them "Patience" and "Fortitude" during the Great Depression.


  1. Magdalene(1790–1791)
  2. John Jacob Astor II (1791–1879)
  3. William Backhouse Astor, Sr. (1792–1875)
  4. Dorothee (1795–1853)
  5. Henry (1797–1799)
  6. Eliza (1801–1838)
  7. Jacob Warndorf (1802)

See also


  1. In 1816, John Jacob Astor of New York City joined the opium smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchased ten tons of Turkish opium, then shipped the contraband item to Canton on the Packet Ship Macedonian. Astor would later leave the China opium trade and sell solely to England.[1]
  2. The All-Time Richest Americans -
  3. In Fortune Magazine's "richest Americans, with an estimated wealth at death of $20,000,000, Astor's Wealth/GDP ratio equalled 1/107.

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