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John Jacob Astor

Astor, John Jacob (ăsˈtər) [key], 1763–1848, American merchant, b. Walldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany. At the age of 16 he went to England, and five years later, in 1784, he arrived in Baltimore, penniless. He later went to New York City, where in a few years he entered into business with a small shop for trade in musical instruments and furs. Shrewdness, driving ambition, and stolid concentration brought him to a commanding position in the burgeoning economy of the United States. He became a leader of the China trade and was an astute investor in lands, principally in and around New York City, but he is perhaps best remembered as a fur trader. He chartered the American Fur Company (1808) and founded subsidiary companies—the Pacific Fur Company (see Astoria, Oreg.) and the South West Company (operating around the Great Lakes). His firm exercised a virtual monopoly of the trade in U.S. territories in the 1820s and still did when he retired from it in 1834. The wealthiest man in the United States at his death, he left a fortune that has continued to make the family name prominent. Part of his money went to found the Astor Library (see New York Public Library). His Astor House was a forerunner of family hotel properties that much later included the Astor Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria.

See biographies by J. U. Terrell (1963) and K. W. Porter (1936, repr. 1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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