Friday, October 30, 2015

Fur Trading After Lewis & Clarke

Astoria, John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. / Peter Stark. Published by ECCO, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. 366 pages, illustrations, including portraits.

Astoria, written by Peter Stark is an intriguing book that tells an exciting story. The book is well-researched such that biographies of the main characters are included in this largely unknown story of exploration.

Following upon Lewis and Clark's successful discovery of an overland route to the Pacific Ocean, Thomas Jefferson encouraged general migration across the Mississippi River to establish habitation in newly acquired "Oregon Country" and to set up trading routes across the Pacific to China.

John Jacob Astor was a recent immigrant from Germany but within a few years had formed a prosperous fur trading business in New York, as well as in real estate. Animal pelts were obtained from Canada and the furs were traded both locally and exported to Europe where a large demand existed. As Canadian fur trappers were gradually moving westward in their search for more pelts, Astor saw the potential to form a similar fur trading enterprise on the Pacific Coast with China as its preferred customer.

Astor with selected American and Candian partners prepared and funded an expedition to reach and set up a trading post in what is now the state of Oregon and to market animal pelts and furs from the western regions of Canada. The planned expedition consisted of a land party following the Lewis and Clark route from St. Louis and a sea route from New York around Cape Horn to meet at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Both parties of the expedition experienced challenges and setbacks. The land party was troubled with native tribes, weather delays and lack of food sources. The sea party had problems with navigation, storms and diversions but persevered with a crew that was regularly abused and punished by a young ex-Navy captain.

Eventually a trading post was built at Astoria, named for the expedition's benefactor. Communication was a serious problem: Astor was deprived of news from either party for over a year from their departure. As well, inventory was accumulating at the post but the lack of available ships prevented any overseas trading, although local trading with natives was ongoing.

In 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. Canada was at the time a colony of Great Britain, and this meant that all the Canadians working for Astor were now enemies of the few Americans working at the trading post. The North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company, both Canadian trading companies, were now instructed to purchase the inventory of Astor's trading post as cheaply as possible, and to set up trading posts in the immediate area. Hostility between Canadians and Americans was avoided and the personnel left the now empty trading post to return home, mainly by the overland route, to their respective countries.

Astor's idea of a west coast fur trading emporium located at the mouth of the Columbia river consequently failed. Astor's New York fur trading business continued to thrive, as did his real estate acquisitions. Although Astor lost money on the west coast project, he was well compensated by his immense wealth which at the time amounted to one percent of the United States GDP (gross domestic product).--DKendall

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