Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire

Peter Stark

Harper & Collins Publisher

Astoria constituted a tiny dot of “civilization” on this farthest, wild rim of the continent. The ports of China lay 12,000 miles across the Pacific. The ports of the United States lay 21,000 miles around Cape Horn—five times farther than Jamestown or Plymouth had lain from their supply ports in England…Should the Astorians need to flee, they had no one to run to, and nowhere to hide. The remoteness and exposure were profound. The nearest reliable help lay at least a year’s journey away.

                                        from  Astoria


Lewis and Clark had it easy

In 1811, John Jacob Astor organized and outfitted two parties to establish a fur trading post on the coast of North America. One would go by sea around Cape Horn; the other, over land through the Rockies.

During the whole of Lewis and Clark’s perilous expedition (1804-1806), only one of their party died (of a ruptured appendix); more than half of those in Astor’s parties would die violent deaths, others would go mad, and most would nearly starve to death.

Peter Stark, author of numerous books on exploration and a contributor to Smithsonian and The New Yorker, has written a gripping account of Astoria’s founding.

Arriving in America in 1784 as a penniless youth from Germany, Astor would amass a great fortune from the burgeoning fur trade. The lustrous sea otter pelts could be bought for one dollar’s worth of trinkets from the Northwest Coast people and sold for the equivalent of one hundred dollars in China.

The leaders of his two parties were poles apart in personality and styles of leadership. Captain Jonathan Thorn, a U.S. naval hero in command of the Tonquin, was decisive yet arrogant and uncompromising. His refusal to listen to those who understood the native cultures would doom him, his men and his ship.

Wilson Price Hunt, a businessman inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness, was a consensus builder, and his gentle hand would hold his party together through the worst of their ordeals. Unnerved by reports about the Blackfeet and their penchant for torturing their captives to death, Hunt departed from Lewis and Clark’s established route. Instead, he set off to find a southern course through uncharted territory, guided by three trappers who turned out to be less reliable than Google Maps. He and his party would become lost and nearly perish in the wintry mountains.

Stark’s book relies heavily on the journals of the survivors, which brings a you-are-there authenticity to the experiences. The account of the Tonquin’s arrival at the Columbia River is harrowing to read. Eight of its crew would drown, trying to find a way through the treacherous bar at the mouth of the great river.

Stark also provides a description of the sophisticated native cultures of that time. Enjoying an ample and protein rich diet (an estimated 300 million salmon ran in predictable patterns each year), their standard of living was in many ways superior to late-eighteenth century conditions in Europe and the U.S.

For those of us in the lower Columbia region, there is the added enjoyment in learning about the men behind the place names we have grown up with, such as the tragic tale of John Day—At least he got a dam named after him.

This is history as it was lived, capturing the vision that propelled people into an uncharted future, and the price they paid for that vision.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.