John Jacob Astor

For other people named John Astor, see John Astor (disambiguation).
John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor portrait by John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1825
Born Johann Jakob Astor[n 1]
(1763-07-17)July 17, 1763
Walldorf, Palatinate, Holy Roman Empire
Died March 29, 1848(1848-03-29) (aged 84)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Resting place Trinity Church Cemetery, New York City, New York, U.S.
Residence New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality German (born)
American (from 1789)
Occupation merchant, businessman, investor, fur trader
Known for First multi-millionaire businessman in the United States
Net worth Increase Estimated US $110.1 billion in 2006 dollars[2]
US $20 million at the time of his death (approximately 1/107 of US GNP)[3]
Religion Reformed[4]
Spouse(s) Sarah Cox Todd
(m. 1785; her death 1842)
  • Magdalena Astor Bentzon Bristed
  • Sarah Todd Astor
  • John Jacob Astor Jr.
  • William Backhouse Astor Sr.
  • Dorothea Astor Langdon
  • Henry Astor II
  • Eliza Astor, Countess von Rumpf
  • unnamed stillborn son
Parent(s) Johann Jakob Astor
Maria Magdalena Vorfelder
Relatives See Astor family

John Jacob Astor (July 17, 1763 – March 29, 1848), born Johann Jakob Astor, was a German American businessman, merchant, real estate mogul and investor who mainly made his fortune in fur trade and by investing in real estate in or around New York City.

Born in Germany, Astor emigrated to England as a teenager and worked as a musical instrument manufacturer. He moved to the United States after the American Revolutionary War. He entered the fur trade and built a monopoly, managing a business empire that extended to the Great Lakes region and Canada, and later expanded into the American West and Pacific coast. Seeing the decline of demand, he got out of the fur trade in 1830, diversifying by investing in New York City real estate and later becoming a famed patron of the arts.[5]

He was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the United States.


Early life

Johann Jakob Astor was born in Walldorf near Heidelberg in the old Palatinate.[6][7] He was the youngest son of Johann Jakob Astor (July 7, 1724 – April 18, 1816) and Maria Magdalena Vorfelder (1730–1766).[8] His three elder brothers were Georg Peter (later "George"; April 28, 1752 – December 3, 1813), Heinrich (later "Henry"; 1754–1833), and Melchior (1759–1829). Astor's father was a butcher;[9] Johann first worked in his father's shop[9] and as a dairy salesman. In 1779, at the age of 16, he moved to London to join his brother George in working for an uncle's piano and flute manufactory, Astor & Broadwood.[9] While there, he learned English and anglicized his name.[10]

Immigration to the United States

In 1783[9] or March 1784, Astor immigrated to New York City, just following the end of the American Revolution, He rented a room from Sarah Cox Todd, a widow and began a flirtation with his landlady's daughter, Sara Cox Todd. His intent was to join his brother Henry, who had established a butcher shop there, but a chance meeting with a fur trader on his voyage inspired him to join the North American fur trade as well.[6] After working at his brother's shop for a time he began to purchase raw hides from Native Americans, prepare them himself, and then resell them in London and elsewhere at great profit.[9] He opened his own fur goods shop in New York in the late 1780s and also served as the New York agent of his uncle's musical instrument business.[11]

Fortune from fur trade

Astor took advantage of the Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States in 1794, which opened new markets in Canada and the Great Lakes region. In London, Astor at once made a contract with the North West Company, who from Montreal rivaled the trade interests of the Hudson's Bay Company, then based in London. Astor imported furs from Montreal to New York and shipped them to Europe.[12] By 1800, he had amassed almost a quarter of a million dollars, and had become one of the leading figures in the fur trade. His agents worked throughout the western areas and were ruthless in competition. In 1800, following the example of the Empress of China, the first American trading vessel to China, Astor traded furs, teas, and sandalwood with Canton in China, and greatly benefited from it.[13]

The U.S. Embargo Act in 1807, however, disrupted Astor's import/export business because it closed off trade with Canada. With the permission of President Thomas Jefferson, Astor established the American Fur Company on April 6, 1808. He later formed subsidiaries: the Pacific Fur Company, and the Southwest Fur Company (in which Canadians had a part), in order to control fur trading in the Great Lakes areas and Columbia River region. His Columbia River trading post at Fort Astoria (established in April 1811) was the first United States community on the Pacific coast. He financed the overland Astor Expedition in 1810–12 to reach the outpost. Members of the expedition were to discover South Pass, through which hundreds of thousands of settlers on the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails passed through the Rocky Mountains.[14]

Astor's fur trading ventures were disrupted during the War of 1812, when the British captured his trading posts. In 1816, he joined the opium-smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchased ten tons of Turkish opium, then shipped the contraband item to Canton on the packet ship Macedonian. Astor later left the China opium trade and sold solely to the United Kingdom.[15]

Astor's business rebounded in 1817 after the U.S. Congress passed a protectionist law that barred foreign fur traders from U.S. territories. The American Fur Company came to dominate trading in the area around the Great Lakes. John Jacob Astor had a townhouse at 233 Broadway in Manhattan and a country estate, Hellgate in Northern New York City. In 1822, Astor established the Robert Stuart House on Mackinac Island as headquarters for the reorganized American Fur Company, making the island a metropolis of the fur trade. A lengthy description based on documents, diaries, etc. was given by Washington Irving in his travelogue Astoria. Astor's commercial connections extended over the entire globe, and his ships were found in every sea. And he and Sarah moved to a townhouse on Prince Street in Manhattan, New York.[11]

Real estate and retirement

Astor began buying land in New York in 1799 and acquired sizable holdings along the waterfront. After the start of the 19th century, flush with China trade profits, he became more systematic, ambitious, and calculating by investing in New York real estate. In 1803, he bought a 70-acre farm that ran west of Broadway to the Hudson River between 42nd and 46th streets. That same year, and the following year, he bought considerable holdings from the disgraced Aaron Burr.[16]

In the 1830s, Astor foresaw that the next big boom would be the build-up of New York, which would soon emerge as one of the world's greatest cities. Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company, as well as all his other ventures, and used the money to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate. Astor correctly predicted New York's rapid growth northward on Manhattan Island, and he purchased more and more land beyond the then-existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land, but leased it to others for rent and their use. After retiring from his business, Astor spent the rest of his life as a patron of culture. He supported the ornithologist John James Audubon in his studies, art work, and travels, and the presidential campaign of Henry Clay.[17]

Marriage and family

On September 19, 1785, Astor married Sarah Cox Todd (1762–1842), the daughter of Scottish immigrants Adam Todd and Sarah Cox.[18] Although she brought him a dowry of only $300, she possessed a frugal mind and a business judgment that he declared better than that of most merchants. She assisted him in the practical details of his business,[19] and managed Astor's affairs when he was away from New York.[20]

They had eight children:

Fraternal organizations

Astor was a Freemason, and served as Master of Holland Lodge #8, New York City in 1788. Later he served as Grand Treasurer for the Grand Lodge of New York. [21]


At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. His estimated net worth, if calculated as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time, would have been equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars, making him the fifth-richest person in American history.[2][n 2]

In his will, Astor bequeathed $400,000 to build the Astor Library for the New York public,[6] which was later consolidated with other libraries to form the New York Public Library. He also left $50,000 for a poorhouse and orphanage in his German hometown of Walldorf.[6] The Astorhaus is now operated as a museum honoring Astor and serves as a renowned fest hall for marriages. Astor donated $25,000 to the German Society of the City of New York, whose chairman he was from 1837 until 1841. Also, he bequeathed $30,000 for a professor's chair in German literature at Columbia University, but due to differences he had with the deanship, he erased this donation from the testament.

Astor left the bulk of his fortune to his second son William, because his eldest son, John Jr., was sickly and mentally unstable. Astor left enough money to care for John Jr. for the rest of his life. Astor is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan, New York. Many members of his family had joined its congregation, but Astor remained a member of the local German Reformed congregation to his death.[4] Herman Melville used Astor as a symbol of men who made the earliest fortunes in New York in his novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener.

The pair of marble lions that sit by the entrance of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after Astor and James Lenox, who founded the library from his own collection. Next, they were called Lord Astor and Lady Lenox (both lions are males). Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed them "Patience" and "Fortitude" during the Great Depression.

In 1908, when the association football club FC Astoria Walldorf was formed in Astor's birthplace in Germany, the group added "Astoria" to its name in his, and the family's, honor.[22]

See also


  1. Jacob was always written with a 'c' in the records of Walldorf's Reformed Church, but Walldorf's Rev. Georg Speyer spelled the name with a 'k' in his laudatio for Astor's 50th death-ceremony. From then on that spelling was used in Astor's hometown.[1]
  2. In Fortune Magazine's richest Americans, with an estimated wealth at death of $20,000,000, Astor's Wealth/GDP ratio equalled 1/107.



  1. Herbert C. Ebeling. Johann Jakob Astor zum 150. Todestag, 1998, p. 2.
  2. 1 2 "The All-Time Richest Americans". September 14, 2007.
  3. Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Michael (1996), The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, p. xi, ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8, OCLC 33818143
  4. 1 2 Reformed Congregation James Parton, Life of John Jacob Astor: To which is appended a Copy of his last will (The American News Comp., 1865), pg. 81
  5. Axel Madsen, John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire (2001)
  6. 1 2 3 4 EB (1878).
  7. BDNA (1904).
  8. "Maria Vorfelder".
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 EB (1911).
  10. Herbert C. Ebeling: Johann Jakob Astor - Ein Lebensbild. pp. 63-69.
  11. 1 2  Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Astor, John Jacob. An American merchant". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  12.  Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Astor, John Jacob, American merchant". Encyclopedia Americana.
  13. Madsen, John Jacob Astor (2001)
  14. Madsen, John Jacob Astor (2001)
  15. "The Opium Kings: Opium Throughout History". Frontline. PBS. Retrieved September 4, 2011.
  16. Burrows, Edwin G.; Wallace, Mike (1998). Gotham A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-19-511634-2
  17. Madsen, John Jacob Astor (2001)
  18. Herbert C. Ebeling. Johann Jakob Astor - Ein Lebensbild, p. 141.
  19.  Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Astor, John Jacob". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  20. Emmerich, Alexander (1 January 2016). "John Jacob Astor". Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies. German Historical Institute. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  21. "Famous Masons". MWGLNY. January 2014.
  22. "Warum heißen die so? Heute: FC Astoria Walldorf" (German). December 8, 2011. Retrieved December 9, 2011.


Further reading

In German

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Preceded by
Richest man in the United States
Succeeded by
William Backhouse Astor Sr.
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