Financier and fur magnate John Jacob Astor was born on this day in 1763 in Walldorf, Baden.
Astor came to America in 1784 with $200 in his pocket intending to join his brother in his New York City butcher's shop. As Astor's ship approached Chesapeake Bay, however, it became stuck in ice, and as Astor waited two months on ship for the Bay to thaw, he learned about the trapping and fur trade in the American West from an experienced fellow passenger. By the time thaw came, Astor had decided to enter the fur business.
By 1800, benefiting from the opening of Canadian trade routes under a treaty between the U.S. and England and by obtaining permission to trade in ports previously exclusively available only to the British East India Company, Astor was the dominant figure in the American fur industry, amassing a fortune of $250,000. Although he continued to operate in the fur industry, he became one of the earliest American capitalists to diversify, using his money to buy large tracts of land in and around New York City. His land holdings would become the basis of the Astor family fortune which sustained several generations.
Astor had planned to establish a network of fur-trading posts in Oregon to trade with China and the Far East when war with England broke out in 1812; and to assist the cash-poor American government in what became known as the War of 1812, Astor and financiers Stephen Girard and David Parish bought and resold $10 million in government war bonds with borrowed money, and made a handsome profit in the process.
Astor survived by his wits rather than his learning: Horace Greeley's Tribune described him as an aggressive man whose poorly scrawled notes often set "spelling and grammar equally at defiance," and his business methods were often questioned as unethical (such as his practice of plying the Northwest Indians with liquor in order to make deals with them). In later years, he cultivated a kinder and gentler image as a philanthropist whose bequests helped to fund the New York Public Library system. At the time of his death on March 29, 1848 in New York City, he was thought to be the wealthiest man in the U.S., with an estimated fortune of close to $30 million.