Johann Jakob Astor

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Johann Jakob Astor, detail of an oil painting by Gilbert Stuart , 1794

Johann Jakob Astor (born July 17, 1763 in Walldorf , Electoral Palatinate , † March 29, 1848 in New York City , United States ), English John Jacob Astor , was a German-American entrepreneur . The German emigrant was in the United States mainly through fur trading and real estate of the richest man of his time and the first multi-millionaire in America. He left a fortune of $ 20 million, two hotels, a theater, numerous real estate, and a variety of stocks.

Origin and advancement

Astor's ancestors were Waldensian religious refugees from Savoy in Italy who had settled in the Electoral Palatinate , south of Heidelberg . His father of the same name (* July 7, 1724, † April 18, 1816) was a village butcher in Walldorf , married twice and very poor, as his work did not generate enough money for himself and his children from both marriages. Johann Jakob jun. was the sixth of twelve children. He lost his mother Maria Magdalena vom Berg (* July 20, 1730; † May 1, 1764) quite early and so Johann Jakob was raised by the stepmother Christina Barbara Seibold (* February 20, 1742; † November 15, 1809).

Astor grew up in this humble environment. He left his place of birth at the age of 16, as did his three older brothers, George Peter Astor (* 1752), Henry Astor (* 1754) and John Melchior Astor (* 1759), who went abroad as soldiers and craftsmen to escape the unsatisfactory conditions. Initially he stayed in London with his brother Georg Peter Astor, who made woodwind instruments and pianos there . The brother also ran a music publisher. Johann Jakob spent three years as an apprentice at Broadwood & Son . He saved the money he earned there to emigrate to North America.

In November 1783 he embarked on the North Carolina in England. The crossing was delayed by four months due to storms. The ship froze within sight of the American coast. After a few days Astor decided to go ashore across the ice, on March 24, 1784 he reached the east coast of North America near Baltimore . He stayed there for a while and reached New York in the spring of 1784 . The brother Heinrich (Henry) Astor (born January 9, 1754, † April 25, 1833), a butcher by trade, was already living in New York. Johann Jakob Astor used his experience in London and built up a music store and imported instruments.

In 1785 he began to engage in the fur trade, which was dominated during this time by the British-Canadian companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company . The center of the North American fur trade was Montreal in Canada . From here, due to the British customs system, the furs had to be shipped to the capital of the British Crown, London, before they could be imported into other countries such as the USA. American merchants shied away from that. Johann Jakob Astor had gained initial experience in transatlantic trading through importing instruments. From 1787 he spent the summer in Montreal every year, buying furs and having them brought to New York via London. He quickly became the most important fur trader in the United States.

Astor was a Freemason and one of the first members of Holland Lodge No. 8 in New York City . In 1788 he became master of the chair there .

In the 1820s, Astor traveled to Europe three times (June 1819 to April 1822, June 1823 to April 1826, June 1832 to April 1834). Due to a lack of sources, it is still uncertain whether he visited his hometown Walldorf.

Fur trade

Presumed appearance of Fort Astoria around 1811 (illustration around 1903)

It was not until his marriage on September 19, 1785 to the American Sarah Todd , whose ancestors came from Scotland and who brought 300 dollars into the marriage, that Astor got enough money to put his fur business on a broader basis. He benefited from political circumstances. After a treaty concluded between the USA and Great Britain in 1796, the trading areas for fur were established between the two states. As a result, the Franco-Canadian fur traders had to vacate their position in the United States. Astor managed to fill this gap. The competition with the state fur trading stations, which exchanged civil goods such as plows with the Indians in return for furs, eliminated Astor by supplying weapons instead. He refused to sell alcohol because drunk Indians were not good hunters. However, in October 1831, Andrew S. Hughes reported to Secretary of War Lewis Cass et al. a. "On the deplorable influence of the agents of the American Fur Company" and further: "I have learned there is little doubt that this year a net profit of more than $ 50,000 has been made from the sale of whiskey to the Missouri Indians" . Astor was also superior to state competition when it came to marketing the furs. While this sold the goods in the USA, Astor served the world market. He continued to expand his business. It was often wrongly assumed that Astor could obtain permission to sell his goods in the branches of the East India Company . Such permission would only have made sense before the American War of Independence . Now, as a merchant in the United States, he no longer needed it. He followed the first American trade efforts with the Chinese canton with interest and went into trade with China himself with great profit around 1800 .

"Astoria" in Oregon. John Jacob Astor founded a trading office here in 1811

In 1808, with the support of the third American President, Thomas Jefferson , he founded the American Fur Company . Its headquarters were three large inland offices in St. Louis , Detroit and Mackinac . A connection with the Pacific coast seemed important at this time. Astor used the ship route around Cape Horn . His ship Tonquin was to circumnavigate South America and seek a land connection to the Columbia River from the west coast . For this purpose, the Pacific Fur Company was founded in 1810 . The expedition paid for by Astor was the first to reach the Columbia River in 1811 and established the settlement of Astoria . The attempt to make Astoria the center of a wide-ranging trade network between Asia, the USA and Europe failed because of the distances, the attacks by Indians and the British-American War of 1812. The Astoria branch sold Astor's agents under duress and against their will Astors on December 12, 1813 to the English who were off the coast with a warship. Astor continued to do good business during the war. Through his relationships with high government officials, he succeeded, among other things after the elimination of the Canadian fur trade in the United States, to obtain control of the North West Company's trading areas in the United States. In the upper Mississippi valley in particular , Astor dominated the fur trade after eliminating its competitors. From there he expanded his activities to the Missouri . The competition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was not very successful for him . In addition, the fashionable taste of the time changed since the 1820s, especially with the move away from hats made of beaver hair to silk hats. Astor began to withdraw from the fur trade. In 1834 he finally broke away from his original business area with the sale of the American Fur Company and devoted himself only to land and land speculation .

Real estate ownership

Astor had planned to acquire land near Manhattan ever since he was a large-scale fur trade . Five years after his arrival in New York at the latest, Astor purchased two properties from his brother Henry on May 17, 1789 on Bowery Lane and Elizabeth Street for $ 625 each. And he had acquired five lots between 1789 and 1791, but was more interested in land in Lower Canada and New York State in the hope of high resale value by 1800 . After quitting the fur trade, he invested even more heavily in real estate in what was then the area around New York City. Astor was right to bet on the city's growth. In fact, a population boom set in and his properties were worth many times what he'd bought them for. Downtown he offered to fill in mortgage deals if any New York company was in financial trouble. If this company failed to pay, the property fell to him for a fraction of its real value. He hardly built any buildings himself, but leased the land to clients, usually for a period of twenty-one years. After that, the property and the building fell back into his possession.

Foundations and estates

Johann Jakob Astor statue in front of the Astorhaus in Walldorf

Astor was undoubtedly a gifted entrepreneur, but he was also obsessed with power and did not shy away from morally dubious business practices such as his opium trade with China between 1808 and 1818. On the other hand, he has spent a lot of money on charity. $ 400,000 alone went to the Astor Library, which later became part of the New York Public Library . $ 25,000 went to the German Society of the City of New York , which Astor was chairman from 1837–1841. The society served as the umbrella organization for German-Americans in New York and was supposed to facilitate immigration from Germany.

Astor died on March 29, 1848. A correction entry in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie incorrectly names March 30, 1848 as the date of death; Michael Rehs also incorrectly states March 20, 1848 as the date of his death in Roots in Foreign Earth . All American newspapers, however, mention March 29, 1848 around 9 a.m. as the date of death. Astor left behind the then unimaginable sum of 20 million dollars. His total holdings (including shares and other assets) amounted to around 110 billion US dollars today (as of 2012). $ 50,000 went to his hometown Walldorf for the construction of a home for children and old people, the Astorhaus, which was inaugurated on July 9, 1854. Another $ 30,000 was earmarked for a professorship in German literature at Columbia University . But due to discrepancies with the university leadership, Astor deleted the passage from his will . In addition, he supported several organizations that helped widows, orphans, the sick and people affected by the flood.


Astor had the following children:

  • Magdalena (1788-1832)
  • Sarah (1790-1791)
  • John Jacob Astor II (1791–1879)
  • William Backhouse Astor senior (1792-1875)
  • Dorothee (1795-1853)
  • Henry (1797-1799)
  • Eliza (1801–1838) ∞ Vincent Rumpff
  • an unbaptized son who died at birth (1802)

Astor was the founder of the Astor family , to which, among other things, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a cosmetics chain and some city names in the USA such as that of Astor in Florida in honor of Astor's grandson William Backhouse Astor junior (1830-1892) , which initially named his settlement Manhattan, or Astoria , Oregon , the fur trading post established by Astor's Sea Expedition in 1811. The Astoria district of New York is also named after Astor.


Astor is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery in New York City (Manhattan).


His hometown Walldorf had Heinrich Bauser erect a memorial for him , which was inaugurated in 1898.



Lexicon articles and articles in biographical compilations

  • Astor, John Jacob. In: Allen Johnson (Ed.): Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 1. C. Scribner's Sons, New York 1943, p. 397 ff. (See also the articles on other family members)
  • Alexander Emmerich: John Jacob Astor. In: Thomas Adam (Ed.): Germany and the Americas. Culture, Politics, and History . ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara 2005, ISBN 1-85109-628-0 , pp. 105 ff . (English).
  • Herbert Hartkopf: Trappers, Scouts & Pioneers from the Electoral Palatinate . Regional culture publisher, Ubstadt-Weiher 2009, ISBN 978-3-89735-601-6 , p. 77 ff .
  • Friedrich von Weech:  Astor, Johann Jakob . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 1, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1875, p. 628 f.
  • Otto Graf zu Stolberg-Wernigerode:  Astor, Johann Jakob. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 1, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1953, ISBN 3-428-00182-6 , p. 423 f. ( Digitized version ).
  • Michael Rehs: The merchant: Johann Jakob Astor. In: Roots in foreign soil. On the history of the southwest German emigration to America . DRW-Verlag, Stuttgart 1984, ISBN 3-87181-231-5 , p. 109 f.
  • John Jacob Astor . In: The Most Successful Entrepreneurs. A K . Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 3-593-37819-1 , pp. 17-23.
  • Gustavus Myers: Big Money - The History of American Fortunes. Greno, Nördlingen 1987, ISBN 3-89190-806-7 .

Fictional literature

  • Katja Doubek: The Astors. Glory and misery of a legendary money dynasty . Piper, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-492-05098-2 .
  • Washington Irving : Astoria, or the story of a trade expedition across the Rocky Mountains . Stuttgart / Tübingen 1838 ( digitized in the Google book search [accessed on December 21, 2010] original 1836).
  • Washington Irving: Astoria . Echo Library, 2007, ISBN 978-1-4068-3804-6 (English).

TV documentary

  • John Jacob Astor. America's richest man. Part of the series: From pioneer to millionaire. arte / ndr, February 18, 2010


In the 1941 film This Woman Is Mine , Astor is played by Sig Ruman .

Web links

Commons : Johann Jakob Astor  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Astoria  - Sources and full texts (English)

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander Emmerich: John Jacob Astor. The most successful German emigrant . Theiss, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2265-4 , pp. 27 .
  2. Kenneth W. Porter, John Jacob Astor: Business Man . Vol. 1 & 2. Harvard University Press, 1931 (English).
  4. ^ William R. Denslow, Harry S. Truman : 10,000 Famous Freemasons . From A to J. Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish 2004, ISBN 1-4179-7578-4 .
  5. Alexander Emmerich: John Jacob Astor. The most successful German emigrant . Theiss, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2265-4 , pp. 99 ff .
  6. ^ Herbert C. Ebeling: Johann Jakob Astor. A picture of life . Astor Foundation, Walldorf 1998, ISBN 3-00-003749-7 , p. 114 .
  7. Alexander Emmerich: John Jacob Astor. The most successful German emigrant . Theiss, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2265-4 , pp. 85 .
  8. ^ A b Wilhelm Oertel von Horn: Johann Jacob Astor. A picture of life. From the people, for the people and their youth . Ed .: Herbert C. Ebeling. Astor Foundation, Walldorf 2004, ISBN 3-00-014021-2 , p. 127 .
  9. See The New York Tribune , March 30, 1848.
  10. ^ The All-Time Richest Americans. In: September 14, 2007, accessed March 5, 2011 .
  11. Alexander Emmerich: John Jacob Astor. The most successful German emigrant . Theiss, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2265-4 , pp. 143 ff .
  12. ^ Herbert C. Ebeling: Johann Jakob Astor. A picture of life . Astor Foundation, Walldorf 1998, ISBN 3-00-003749-7 , p. 317 .
  13. ^ Herbert C. Ebeling: Johann Jakob Astor. A picture of life . Astor Foundation, Walldorf 1998, ISBN 3-00-003749-7 , p. 308-312 .
  14. John Jacob Astor. America's richest man. In: Retrieved March 5, 2011 .
  15. John Jacob Astor. America's richest man. (No longer available online.) In: Formerly in the original ; Retrieved March 5, 2011 .  ( Page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link /