Born 1763 Died 1848
John Jacob Astor was born at the village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, on the 17th of July 1763. Until he was sixteen he worked in the shop of his father, a butcher; he then joined an elder brother in London, and there for four years was employed in the piano and flute factory of an uncle, of the firm of Astor & Broadwood.
In 1783 he emigrated to America, and settled in New York, whither one of his brothers had previously gone. On the voyage he became acquainted with a fur-trader, by whose advice he devoted himself to the same business, buying furs directly from the Indians, preparing them at first with his own hands for the market, and selling them in London and elsewhere at a great profit. He was also the agent in New York of the firm of Astor & Broadwood. By his energy, industry and sound judgment he gradually enlarged his operations, did business in all the fur markets of the world, and amassed an enormous fortune, the largest up to that time made by any American.
He devoted many years to carrying out a project for organizing the fur trade from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, and thence by way of the Hawaiian Islands to China and India. In 1811 he founded, at the mouth of the Columbia river a settlement named after him Astoria, which was intended to serve as the central depot; but two years later the settlement was seized and occupied by the English. The incidents of this undertaking are the theme of Washington Irving's Astoria. A series of disasters frustrated the gigantic scheme.
Astor made vast additions to his wealth by investments in real estate in New York City, and erected many buildings there, including the hotel known as the Astor House.
The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in retirement in New York City, where he died on the 29th of March 1848, his fortune then being estimated at about $30,600,000. He made various charitable bequests by his will, and among them a gift of $50,000 to found an institution, opened as the 'Astor House' in 1854, for the education of poor children and the relief of the aged and the destitute in his native village in Germany. His chief benefaction, however, was a bequest of $400,000 for the foundation and endowment of a public library in New York City, since known as the Astor library, and since 1895 part of the New York public library.
See Parton's Life of John Jacob Astor (New York, 1865).
Extracted from the entry for ASTOR, JOHN JACOB OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.