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John Jacob Astor lived through1763-1848. He was a fur trader, businessman, and real estate investor. Astor began life as one of twelve children of a poor German butcher and died the richest man in America. The making of a great fortune was the aim and purpose of Astor's life, and he accomplished it by dominating the American fur trade and investing his profits in the real estate of burgeoning New York City. Shortly before his death, Astor was asked if he would have done anything differently with his life. He is supposed to have replied that his only regret was not having bought all of Manhattan. Astor was born in the small town of Waldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany.
At twenty he followed his older brother Henry to New York, arriving with hardly a penny. He became a clerk to a fur trader and mastered that business quickly. His employer was impressed with Astor's intelligence and energy and entrusted him with more and more responsibilities, including buying furs upstate and selling them in London. Before long Astor was operating on his own account and prospered at once. He began putting his profits into Manhattan real estate, investing nearly $7,000, a large sum of money in those days, between 1789 and 1791. Astor's strategy was to buy, very cheaply, land that lay far beyond the developed area of the city and then to wait for the city's rapid growth to reach his lots. In 1803, for instance, he paid $25,000 for seventy acres located more than an hour's ride north of what were then the city's physical limits. By the 1870s the land was worth $20 million to the Astor family.
Today the area is known as Times Square. Because China was an excellent market for furs in 1800, Astor entered the China trade and earned large profits from it, often as much as $50,000 from a single voyage. In 1808 he established the American Fur Company to exploit the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. He built a trading post at the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River in 1811, naming it Astoria. This grand scheme fell apart when one of Astor's ships was lost at sea and the War of 1812 cost him the support of his allies in Canada. It was Astor's one great failure. Regardless, Astor turned the War of 1812 to good account when he made the federal government, desperate for cash, a large loan, paying only about forty cents on the dollar for government bonds.
As always it was the increase in his fortune that mattered to Astor; patriotism did not deter him from driving any but the hardest of bargains. By the end of the 1820s Astor had a near monopoly of the American fur trade, but he realized that because of the vagaries of fashion and rising costs, the trade was becoming less profitable. He sold out all his fur interests in 1834 and spent the last fourteen years of his life speculating in New York real estate. When Astor died in New York, he left an estimated $40 million, a sum several times larger than any other American fortune of the day. He left nearly all of it to his son, but gave $400,000 to establish the Astor Library, one of three that would later merge to form today's great New York Public Library. Bibliography:.
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