Book Review 11/16/14
Peter Stark’s Astoria is the historical account of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to colonize the Pacific Northwest and establish an international fur trading post that would facilitate an unprecedented world-wide trading network at the turn of the 19th century. Astor’s vision capitalized on the seemingly endless supply of wild game available for the taking and the relatively quick and efficient shipping lanes to the orient where an appetite for furs guaranteed a seller’s market and exorbitant profits. That was the plan at any rate…
Successfully landing a party of loyal disciples at the mouth of the Columbia River in what later became the Oregon Territory turned out to be in reality, more challenging than landing humans on the moon a century and a half later. To enhance his chances for success, Astor planned an ambitious two-pronged approach, i.e., by both land and sea.
Lewis and Clark had recently demonstrated an overland cross-continental route to the Pacific Ocean was indeed possible, but with the geographical challenges of crossing the Rocky Mountains, incredibly harsh winter weather and uncertain relations with the Native American caretakers of these lands, Astor’s pioneers found that survival was by no means guaranteed.
At the same time Astor financed a group to sail more than 20,000 miles from New York south all the way around Cape Horn and then back up the west coast so they could meet the overland party at the Columbia River basin to begin work on the new settlement. While exploration by sea was no longer novel in 1810, it was certainly not without significant risks either.
So Astoria is primarily the page turner tale of an ambitious adventure – Stark recounts the story in compelling fashion based on first-hand accounts in diaries and through historical records by people such as Washington Irving, whom years later, Astor commissioned to tell his story. As such, it is an absorbing read.
But with its focus on the action and suspense as the events unfolded one wonders if Stark was envisioning the inevitable Hollywood dramatization as he wrote. While his careful research resulted in what appears to be a factual accounting of events, I found myself wondering about what was likely excluded from standard historical sources. He does not attempt to peel away the many layers of whitewash that have been applied to the traditional telling of American history and thus does little to provide an objective historical reflection and analysis of what actually occurred.
Astor was one of America’s first billionaires (in today’s dollars) and was well-connected politically – he had the ear of former president Thomas Jefferson, NY Governor Dewitt Clinton and others. Because of his dream for international trade and concomitant profits on a scale never before possible, and his willingness to invest large amounts of money to support his endeavor, he is portrayed as a heroic visionary.
“Astor possessed the resilience and confidence to fail, along with the focus and drive to keep going despite failure. In this, Astor’s attempt at a West Coast empire echoes the story of the early European settlement of the East Coast. It required a visionary and risk-taking”
In reality, Astor had amassed such a huge fortune that he could afford (literally and figuratively) to gamble with his money and his team’s lives to pursue his vision of world dominating wealth and power. He demonstrated little regard for the lives or well-being of those he sent on his colonial expedition mission (more than 60 people perished and others suffered pain and anguish as a result) as he directed operations from the safety and comfort of his New York mansions. Should this “tenacity” be celebrated?
The plight of the many indigenous American tribes is of course, woven indelibly into the history of this period and Astor’s expeditionary team had numerous interactions, both positive and negative. In many cases the team was saved from certain death and starvation by the good will of Native Americans; other times when the settlers presented real or perceived threats they were met with violent retribution. There are frequent references to “savages,” the typical European jingoistic characterization of Native Americans. No doubt that was an accurate portrayal of how they were perceived by the white settlers but haven’t we yet learned how to view history in a more objective light?