Destined to make a fortune from the furs of the American West, John Jacob Astor is born in modest circumstances in the small German village of Waldorf.
Although the number of foreign immigrants to the U.S. who succeeded in striking it rich is often exaggerated in the popular mind, Astor's brilliant success demonstrates that "rags to riches" stories did sometimes happen. In his home village of Waldorf, Germany, not far from the city of Heidelberg, the young Astor's opportunities were respectable though limited. The son of the village butcher, Astor could have followed in his father's footsteps or entered some other modest trade. Instead, when he was 16 years old, Astor left Waldorf and traveled to London to join his brother in the manufacture of musical instruments.
Eager to find new markets, the two brothers looked overseas to the newly independent United States of America. In 1793, Astor sailed for America with a shipload of flutes and little money. En route, Astor became friends with a fur dealer who persuaded him to sell his flutes in New York and use the profits to buy furs to sell upon returning to London. He did, and the sizeable profit convinced him to enter full-time into the fur trade.
Quickly learning all he could about the growing American fur trade, Astor made numerous trips to the western frontier, and by the end of the century, he had become the leading fur merchant in the United States. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Astor moved aggressively to exploit this huge new territory for its furs. Although Lewis and Clark's exploration of the territory brought back the disappointing news that there was no easy water passage across the continent to the Pacific, Astor was nonetheless convinced that a Pacific Coast operation could profitably sell its furs to the huge China market. In 1810, he created the Pacific Fur Company. Within two years, his men had established a trading post named Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River (about sixty miles northwest of modern-day Portland).
The outbreak of the War of 1812 forced Astor to abandon Astoria to the British, effectively destroying his Pacific Fur Company, but he eventually achieved much the same end by gradually expanding his New York-based American Fur Company westward. By 1823, Astor's firm dominated the American fur trade east of the Rockies, although the British Hudson Bay Company maintained its hold in Oregon Territory until 1845. By then, the fur trade was already going into steep decline as beaver populations were wiped out and fashion shifted to silk rather than fur hats.
Fortunately, in the 1830s, the crafty Astor had begun diversifying his business interests by purchasing huge amounts of New York real estate. Building on the profits he had made in the fur trade, Astor abandoned his interest in the western frontier altogether in 1834 and concentrated on his East Coast investments. When he died in New York City in 1848, the German butcher's son that had arrived in the U.S. with nothing but a shipload of flutes was the wealthiest man in America. His estate was conservatively estimated at $20 million.