The distant outpost of Astor's American Fur Company, a fort and trading post called Fort Astoria, was part of an ambitious and highly sophisticated business plan. But it was also an idea far ahead of its time.
Difficult circumstances, including its remote location and the outbreak of the War of 1812, led to the failure of Astor's grand scheme. But the Astoria episode showed that the West Coast of North America could be settled. And it made Americans, who at the time were mostly clustered along the eastern seaboard, think about enormous economic opportunities which lay far to the west.
And an unexpected dividend of Astor's plan was the discovery of the eventual road westward for many thousands of American settlers.
The Grand Plan of John Jacob Astor, America's Richest Man
Though his fur empire was headquartered in New York City, John Jacob Astor, an immigrant from Germany, viewed his growing business as a global enterprise. He had launched his business by selling furs of North American beavers in Europe, and later expanded to selling furs to China.
He reasoned that if he could set up a fur trading outpost on the Pacific coast of North America, he could transport the furs directly across the ocean to the Chinese market.
In China, Astor's traders would exchange the furs for tea and other export goods which would then be transported back for sale, at enormous profit, in New York City.
Astor's plan was extraordinarily ambitious, and he was determined to make it work.
Astoria's Settlers Would Travel By Land and By Sea
After Lewis and Clark had returned from their expedition in 1806, Astor realized that it was possible to trek overland to the Pacific Ocean. So he devised a plan by which a party of trappers and explorers would walk westward to Oregon.
At the same time, a ship would leave New York City, sail around the tip of South America, and sail up the Pacific Coast and establish a settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The two groups would link up, and the settlement would begin operations as a fur trading outpost.
Bad Luck Plagued Fort Astoria
The seagoing part of the expedition left New York City in September 1810 aboard the ship Tonquin. After rounding South America, the ship visited Hawaii, where it picked up supplies, and finally reached the mouth of the Columbia River in present day Oregon in March 1811.
The group aboard the Tonquin founded Fort Astoria, the present day site of Astoria, Oregon.
In June 1811, after the fort was established, the Tonquin sailed up the coast and encountered hostile Indians. The crew was massacred and the ship was destroyed.
The men at Fort Astoria, though shaken by the loss of the ship, continued to set up their trading post, and established friendly with local Indians.
The overland expedition which traveled across the continent faced its own hardships. Leaving St. Louis in late 1810, about four dozen men arrived on the Oregon coast by early 1812.
The War of 1812 Interferes With Fort Astoria
On June 29, 1812 one of the men who had come on the Tonquin, Robert Stuart, left Fort Astoria to trek eastward, intending to inform John Jacob Astor in New York City of the loss of the Tonquin and the need for supplies at Fort Astoria. What Stuart did not know when he departed was that the United States had declared war on Britain 11 days earlier.
Seven months later the men at Fort Astoria heard from British traders who had set up a trading post nearby that the two nations were at war. Fearing that a British ship was coming to seize Fort Astoria, the men sold the outpost to the British trading company.
The Oregon Trail Was the Real Legacy of Fort Astoria
When the overland expedition had traveled westward to Fort Astoria, the men were not successful in finding a reliable trail through the Rocky Mountains. However, Robert Stuart's group, carrying the dispatches for John Jacob Astor, had much better luck in finding passes and establishing what in later years would be called the Oregon Trail.
For decades the trail blazed by Stuart (who did eventually reach St. Louis and then traveled to New York on horseback) would be something of a secret among fur traders. But in the early 1840s "emigrants," as the early settlers were called, began using the trail. And by the end of the 1840s tens of thousands of settlers and their prairie schooners made a steady procession westward along the Oregon Trail.
Fort Astoria never lived up to what John Jacob Astor envisioned. But his ambitious project yielded a great unexpected benefit, as the men bringing bad news to him had found the path that made westward expansion possible.