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John Jacob Astor lived through1763-1848. He was a
fur trader, businessman, and real estate investor.
Astor began life as one of twelve children of a
poor German butcher and died the richest man in
America. The making of a great fortune was the aim
and purpose of Astor’s life, and he accomplished
it by dominating the American fur trade and
investing his profits in the real estate of
burgeoning New York City. Shortly before his
death, Astor was asked if he would have done
anything differently with his life. He is supposed
to have replied that his only regret was not
having bought all of Manhattan. Astor was born in
the small town of Waldorf, near Heidelberg,
Germany.

At twenty he followed his older brother
Henry to New York, arriving with hardly a penny.
He became a clerk to a fur trader and mastered
that business quickly. His employer was impressed
with Astor’s intelligence and energy and entrusted
him with more and more responsibilities, including
buying furs upstate and selling them in London.
Before long Astor was operating on his own account
and prospered at once. He began putting his
profits into Manhattan real estate, investing
nearly $7,000, a large sum of money in those days,
between 1789 and 1791. Astor’s strategy was to
buy, very cheaply, land that lay far beyond the
developed area of the city and then to wait for
the city’s rapid growth to reach his lots. In
1803, for instance, he paid $25,000 for seventy
acres located more than an hour’s ride north of
what were then the city’s physical limits. By the
1870s the land was worth $20 million to the Astor
family.

Today the area is known as Times Square.
Because China was an excellent market for furs in
1800, Astor entered the China trade and earned
large profits from it, often as much as $50,000
from a single voyage. In 1808 he established the
American Fur Company to exploit the newly acquired
Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. He
built a trading post at the mouth of Oregon’s
Columbia River in 1811, naming it Astoria. This
grand scheme fell apart when one of Astor’s ships
was lost at sea and the War of 1812 cost him the
support of his allies in Canada. It was Astor’s
one great failure. Regardless, Astor turned the
War of 1812 to good account when he made the
federal government, desperate for cash, a large
loan, paying only about forty cents on the dollar
for government bonds.

As always it was the
increase in his fortune that mattered to Astor;
patriotism did not deter him from driving any but
the hardest of bargains. By the end of the 1820s
Astor had a near monopoly of the American fur
trade, but he realized that because of the
vagaries of fashion and rising costs, the trade
was becoming less profitable. He sold out all his
fur interests in 1834 and spent the last fourteen
years of his life speculating in New York real
estate. When Astor died in New York, he left an
estimated $40 million, a sum several times larger
than any other American fortune of the day. He
left nearly all of it to his son, but gave
$400,000 to establish the Astor Library, one of
three that would later merge to form today’s great
New York Public Library. Bibliography:.

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