book Review: “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire — A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark

This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014.

stark -- astoriaStorms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century.

Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience:

A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon…

Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure and help the reader get into a scene or understand the context or see relationships between participants and between then and now.

Fascinating….and odd

As it is, the Astoria tale is a fascinating, if odd, adventure. It’s odd, in part, because its central character, Astor, never leaves New York. It’s his employees and partners, his surrogates, who make the effort at great personal price to bring his vision of a global trading system into being. He’s the one with the money and the plan.

Another oddity of the story is that it’s really two stories. Astor’s plan in 1810, as Stark explains in Astoria, was to send two parties of voyageurs, traders and clerks to the mouth of the Columbia River at the border of the present-day states of Oregon and Washington.

One party went overland, blazing a new route and getting lost in the process, suffering through exhaustion, snow, cold, starvation and thirst. The second group sailed, and, despite horrific storms at times, those men had the easier time — at least until they arrived.

In March, 1811, amid squalls and heavy waves, Jonathan Thorn, the captain of Astor’s ship Tonquin, needed to find the channel to safely get past a four-mile-long sandbar blocking the mouth of the Columbia. He ordered his first mate Mr. Fox and three others on a seemingly suicidal mission to row the ship’s whaleboat into the crashing surf to discover the passage.

“My uncle was drowned here not many years ago,” Fox said, “and now I am going to lay my bones with his.” All four men perished in the attempt.

Indeed, over a three-year period, 61 of the 140 or so partners and employees died in the effort to create Astoria.

Important though over-looked

Native Americans had been living around the Columbia for 11,000 years, but the area had been ignored by Europeans, Canadians and Americans because it was not “on the way to somewhere,” Stark notes. Astor, though, saw it as a key nexus for an international trading strategy that would enable him to bring cheap merchandise from New York to trade for Pacific Coast furs, take the highly prized furs to China to sell at a huge mark-up and sail away with Chinese porcelain, silk and tea for markets in London and New York.

So Astor dreamed of a business empire, and former President Thomas Jefferson, enthusiastic about the plan, dreamed of an independent democratic nation that would grow out of Astor’s trading center. More likely, though, if things had gone a little differently, is that the entire Pacific Coast north of Mexico might today be part of the United States.

But the effort failed.

Bad luck, misguided (and possibly traitorous) leadership, the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain, and the frailties of human nature — the failure of body and will to overcome the wilderness — ended up scuttling Astor’s great vision.

It’s a story that, a century and a half ago, most Americans knew. In 1836, Washington Irving published his own history of the attempt, also called Astoria, written at the urging of and with the help of Astor. It was a bestseller. Since then, though, the tale has faded, as failures often do, from the public consciousness.

In Astoria, Stark reminds the American public of this important, though over-looked, moment in the nation’s history. (It resulted in the Oregon Trail and, later, in the establishment of the northern U.S. border at the latitude of 49 degrees north.)

The great service of explaining

Beyond this, though, he renders a great service to his readers when, as with the storm at sea, he steps back from his narrative to explain.

Take sea otter fur, called “soft gold” by Russian traders for their sale value in China. Stark explains:

Sea otter pelts mesmerized the luxury-loving beholder. With nearly one million fine hairs per square inch, the sea otter possesses the densest fur of any mammal known. The fineness and denseness of the hairs give it a soft, luxurious touch.

Or consider the trait of Indian warfare always mentioned in history books about the West but rarely described — scalping. Not only does Stark provide a long paragraph on how it was done (I’ll spare you), but also the meaning behind it:

This close personal contact with the enemy and the removal of part of his person allowed the victor to absorb the victim’s power.

He does the same with the Native American war club:

Known as pogamoggans or Ka’heit’am (“killing object”), the war clubs were highly decorated and coveted objects, crafted of polished materials such as whalebone and stone, finely shaped with balls or knobs or spikes at the end of a slender bone or wooden handle — sometime flexible and whiplike — the graceful whole designed to inflict maximum blunt trauma to the skull.

A great American story

Writing nearly two centuries after Irving’s book, Stark is able to bring to his account a much greater understanding of and sensitivity to the Native American experience and to the interactions between Indians and whites.

Time and again throughout Stark’s Astoria, Astor’s traders are saved from privation and death by helpful natives. He explains:

The Crow chief received the leaders in his tipi with the same gracious hospitality they’d experienced with the Arikara and Cheyenne. A similar code of hospitality traditionally extends to wayfarers among many nomadic societies across the world — among Inuit hunters in the Artic, Bedouin dwellers in the desert, Tibetan nomads on the high Asian plateaus…One extends hospitality to wayfarers in need with the unspoken knowledge that one day it will be returned.

In Astoria, Stark tells a great American story. By adding such passages filled with insight and perspective, especially when they link his tale to other cultures and geographies, he tells a great human story.

Patrick T. Reardon

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