John Jacob Astor and Pacific Fur Company partners sign agreement in New York City on June 23, 1810.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 5/26/2010
  • Essay 9437

On June 23, 1810, Pacific Fur Company partners sign articles of agreement in New York City. This new enterprise aims to monopolize the American fur trade from coast to coast. The wealthy New York merchant John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) is president, prime mover, and principal stockholder of the fledgling organization, and he will soon dispatch two expeditions to found a transcontinental trading network headquartered on the Columbia River, "the first American commercial undertaking west of the mountains."

From Bassoon to Beaver

A native of Germany, John Jacob Astor journeyed to New York City to join an older brother when he was about 20 years old, carrying a consignment of musical instruments and a desire to make a place for himself in the New World.  After a short stint as a baker's delivery boy, he found work for a local furrier, where he quickly learned the rudiments of the fur trade. He peddled trinkets along the docks to exchange with sailors for pelts, traipsed through the backcountry of western New York in search of white trappers and Indian hunters, carried his finds back to the city, beat dust and dirt from the cured skins, arranged them for display, and baled them for shipment.

Using the proceeds from the sales of his instruments as capital, he began purchasing pelts on his own account, then booked passage to London, where he sold his accumulated stock for a handy profit which he promptly invested in "an elegant assortment" of musical books and instruments for the American market (Porter, 26).

The Importance of Marrying Well

Soon after his return to New York in 1785, he married Sarah Todd (1762-1842), who soon proved herself a gifted businesswoman with an astute eye for judging the value of furs. About this time, Astor extended his buying trips to Montreal, where he conducted business with the major merchants and partners of the North West Company. By 1788, offers to buy or sell beaver, raccoon, and muskrat skins appeared in Astor advertisements alongside Piano Fortes, Violins, and Bassoons. He also began importing general merchandise from Europe, and his growing knowledge of international commerce, combined with his wife's business acumen, led to increasing financial prosperity. In the early 1800s, he began exporting furs to China and importing silks, teas, and porcelain.

The peltry trade remained his central interest, and "by the end of the century, he had become the leading fur merchant of the United States and probably the world's leading authority upon the fur business," with commercial relationships around the world (Chittenden, 165).  Always alert to new opportunities, he was apparently galvanized by the purchase of Louisiana Territory and by reports of the bountiful supply of fur-bearing animals encountered by Lewis and Clark on their western voyage. Envisioning the profits that might be reaped from those untapped regions, he saw "the germ of a mighty future empire" (Chittenden, 167). 

Astor's Vision: A Mighty Fur Empire

That empire would encompass a triangular trade route, with ships from New York bearing trade goods and supplies to an establishment on the Pacific coast, where furs gathered from Western tribes would be loaded and taken to China for sale. Then the ships would return to New York with cargoes of teas, silks, and other Oriental goods to supply home markets.

To advance the interior fur trade, Astor visualized a series of trading posts up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and down the Columbia to the Pacific. Furs collected east of the Rockies would be floated down the Missouri and Mississippi to New Orleans, whereas traders west of the Divide would spread through the tributaries of the Columbia and funnel their pelts to a hub near the great river's mouth.

A transcontinental trading network with a port on the Northwest coast was certainly not an original idea -- after attempting to trace a navigable passage to the Pacific in 1793, Canadian explorer Alexander McKenzie (1764-1820) had lobbied for a British expedition to explore and colonize the Columbia. In 1801 and 1806 the North West Company had dispatched David Thompson (1770-1857) to establish posts on that river. Astor would certainly have heard a great deal about these developments from his friend and business associate Alexander Henry (the Elder) (1739-1834) in Montreal. The information gathered by Lewis and Clark about the lower Columbia "may have crystallized thoughts and plans Astor had already developed from talks" with Canadian acquaintances (Ronda, 31).

The Politics of Doing Business

While contemplating his ambitious idea, Astor proceeded with his hallmark attention to detail. Realizing the considerable risks that this new enterprise would face, he sought the protection of a corporation, successfully lobbying the New York legislature to grant a charter to his fledgling fur company in 1808.

There were political considerations as well, and Astor sought the blessing of President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), enumerating the advantages that would result from the success of his venture: the economic boost from the money he would spend on wages, transportation, and provisions; the capital investment in permanent trading posts across the continent; the goodwill among the Indian tribes that would endear them to the American administration. Historian James Ronda observes that Astor was "wrapping his private affairs in the cloak of national interest" and that he "wanted the Astorians to be seen as agents of the United States, not mere employees of a private firm" (Ronda, 52). With the boundary west of the Rockies a source of contention between the United States and Great Britain, President Jefferson was happy to encourage a reputable American businessman whose activities would strengthen the sovereign claims of the United States.   

With official approbation for the "first American commercial undertaking west of the mountains" (Ronda, 37), Astor looked north. Given his knowledge of the North West Company's efforts to extend their trade across the Divide and down the Columbia to the Pacific, Astor in 1809 sought to neutralize their competition by proposing a joint venture west of the Rockies. The complicated structure of the Canadian company slowed the decision-making process, and negotiations dragged on for months among the widespread partners whose approval was required before a deal could be finalized.

Getting Started

While waiting to learn the ultimate decision of the North West Company, Astor turned his attention to the personnel needed to bring his plans to fruition. To serve as his chief agent, Astor approached Wilson Price Hunt (1783-1842), a St. Louis merchant who hired several Missouri River traders and frontiersmen of his acquaintance as assistants. Because no American furmen possessed the expertise needed to organize a new trading network in the Far West, Astor recruited experienced Canadian traders for his remaining leadership. In March, 1810, he signed a provisional agreement with three veteran Nor'Westers: Alexander McKay (ca. 1770-1811), a retired North West Company partner who had accompanied Alexander McKenzie to the Pacific in 1793; and clerks Donald Mackenzie (1783-1851) and Duncan McDougall (178?-1818). These men opened an office in Montreal and enlisted three additional partners, 18  clerks, and dozens of seasoned voyageurs and hunters.   

Astor had hoped to learn the North West Company's decision on his offer of cooperation by May 1810, but when no word arrived, he determined to proceed on his own. On June 23, 1810, most of the principals assembled in New York City to sign the articles of agreement for the Pacific Fur Company. The details covered 20 handwritten pages. Astor held 50 of the 100 shares, while his eight partners received between two and five shares each. As principal shareholder, Astor would invest up to $400,000 and bear all losses for five years. He would furnish "vessels, goods, wares, merchandises, provisions, arms, ammunition, and men" (McCartney, 36).

Setting Out

With the legal infrastructure in place, Astor finalized the planning for the two expeditions he had decided to send to the Pacific.

The first party would sail from New York on the ship Tonquin with the supplies and equipment necessary "to establish a fur trading post at, or in the vicinity of the Columbia River" (McCartney, 36). Partners Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougall, David Stuart (1765-1853) and Robert Stuart (1785-1848) would superintend the establishment of the trade in the Columbia region upon their arrival.

The second group, commanded by Wilson Price Hunt and Donald Mackenzie, would depart St. Louis in late October and travel west along Lewis and Clark's route, selecting appropriate locations for trading posts and establishing friendly rapport with Indian tribes along the way. Astor, who watched the Tonquin set sail on September 8, 1810, would later muse, "Was there ever an undertaking of more merit, of more hazard, and more enterprising?" (Ronda, 23).

Sources: Hiram Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Laton McCartney, Robert Stuart and the Discovery of the Oregon Trail, (New York: Free Press, 2003); Kenneth Wiggins Porter, John Jacob Astor, Business Man, Vol. 1, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931); James Ronda, Astoria and Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

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