I finished reading ASTORIA: ASTOR AND JEFFERSON'S LOST PACIFIC EMPIRE by Peter Stark the other evening. Published in 2014, ASTORIA is one helluva epic adventure story which recounts a tale from American history that I knew absolutely nothing about.
In 1810, John Jacob Astor (the first), a German immigrant in Manhattan, was just beginning to make his fortune in both real estate and the burgeoning fur trade. He recognized that the Pacific Northwest was ripe for economic conquest and whomever could get there first, could establish a base from which to create a global empire of trade. President Thomas Jefferson agreed with Astor's bold vision and encouraged him to pursue the venture. At that time, shortly after the Lewis and Clark expedition, the west coast of North America and the area that would become the states of California, Oregon and Washington, did not belong to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase did not include this land and thus, whoever could get there first could stake a claim with the land either belonging to the United States, or more ambitiously, a new, separate nation.
Astor financed a two-pronged expedition to the west coast. One group sailed on the Tonquin out of New York City, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Pacific Coast to the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River. The commander of the vessel, Captain John Thorn, was a strictly by-the-book leader who clashed repeatedly with some of the more freewheeling fur trappers among his passengers. The friction between the men was made even worse by the extraordinarily hazardous conditions they encountered on the voyage.
Meanwhile, Wilson Price Hunt, a mild, even-tempered man and a wilderness tenderfoot, led a party up the Missouri River, along the route explored and mapped by Lewis and Clark. But the party soon learned that hostile, deadly Indians lay along the path and thus, made a fateful decision. They quit the river and struck out on foot across the immense, unexplored and unmapped mountain territory in search of the head waters of the Columbia River. The path that they forged later became the Oregon Trail.
Both parties, by sea and by land, experience incredible peril and hardships before, miraculously, eventually reaching their destination. The trading post of Astoria is established and they set about building Astor's empire. But things soon go bad. Their vessel, the Tonquin, is blown up in an encounter with Indians, another supply ship is months from reaching them, the weather is cold, wet and miserable and the men are completely isolated on the wild, uncharted coast with only Indians (both hostile and friendly) as neighbors. It takes months to get information to and from New York and thus, the men know nothing about what's going on in the world while they struggle to establish a permanent outpost.
What's going on in the world is the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The British, with fur trading companies already established in North America, would like nothing better than to stake their own claim on the Columbia River and what better place to plant the Union Jack than the already built Astoria?
ASTORIA is a magnificent, riveting, page-turner of an adventure story. Author Stark has done his homework well. In addition to journals, letters and contemporary accounts of the expeditions, Stark visited as many of the places he writes about as possible in order to give his prose a "you-are-there" verisimilitude. My only gripe, and it's a small one, is that Stark tends to be a little repetitious at times, using some of the same wording, phrases and sentences more than once or twice.
But that's a minor quibble. ASTORIA is a terrific story of ambition and survival. "Go big or go home" is an apt description of Astor's bold venture. He came close to a success that, if he had secured it, would have transformed global trade in the 19th century. While he lost his gamble with Astoria, Astor went on to become one of the wealthiest men in all of American history. He risked only his money. His men risked their lives.