On this day in 1810, the sailing ship Tonquin leaves New York with 33 employees of Jacob Astor’s new Pacific Fur Company on board. Six months later, the Tonquinarrived at the mouth of the Columbia River, where Astor’s men established the town of Astoria and began trading for furs with the Indians. Thus began the first major American involvement in the lucrative far western fur trade.
During the colonial era, the powerful British Hudson’s Bay Company, along with several French companies based in Montreal, had dominated the North American fur trade. But slowly and timidly, Americans began to establish their own fur companies in the early nineteenth century, particularly after Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-6) reported that the vast new American territory was rich in beaver.
Based on their explorations, Lewis and Clark suggested that furs could be carried over the Rockies by horse to the Columbia River and from there shipped to the Orient more cheaply than the British or French could move furs eastward to Europe. Recognizing a rare business opportunity, the German-born immigrant John Jacob Astor organized his Pacific Fur Company and dispatched the Tonquin for the Oregon coast to try and make Lewis and Clark’s proposal a reality. But while the small trading post of Astoria initially quickly proved a success, the American control of the Pacific Northwest fur trade did not last. By late 1813, Astor’s partners, who were mostly Canadian, decided to sell out to the British North West Company, and during the War of 1812 the British Navy took control of Astoria.
With the British temporarily dominating the region, Astor decided to dissolve the Pacific Fur Company and focus his efforts on his American Fur Company, an enterprise that eventually came to control three-quarters of the American fur trade. Despite the loss of his first Pacific coast outpost at Astoria, Astor’s profits from his American Fur Company, the War of 1812, and large investments in real estate, eventually made him the wealthiest American of his day and established one of the great enduring family fortunes.