August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
THE COURSE OF EMPIRE (Hounghton Mifflin Company)
No more a wilderness man than any Montreal fur merchant, [John Jacob] Astor was a better business man than the best of them. Adept at the international alliances of finance, he could also think in terms of continental and world trade. … [President] Jefferson … told [Meriwether] Lewis that Astor was “a most excellent man” and he had pledged Astor “every reasonable patronage and facility in the power of the executive.” For this excellent man might be the agency that would secure to the United States “exclusive possession of the Indian commerce.”
Astor believed as devoutly as Jefferson in exclusive possession. His plan, Kenneth Porter says, was “even more exclusive than that of the President. It was his purpose to concentrate the Western fur trade in the hands of only such American citizens as had been born in Waldorf, Germany, in 1763 and had arrived in the United States from London in the spring of 1784.” But the plan was not therelore any the less brilliant or formidable… Astor intended to encircle and undersell not only the North West Company [a British enterprise] … but all Montreal by utilizing the direct transport of the Lewis and Clark trail, by maintaining trading posts at the indicated sites along that trail, and by securing the key to everything, the mouth of the Columbia River.
To that end the American Fur Company was organized. the Pacific Fur Company was added to it, the’ Astorian enterprise was launched, the continent was crossed, and Astoria was built. … But though Astoria failed as a step in Astor’s creation of a fur trust, it did not fail Jefferson or the United States. For … it placed the Columbia River country, all the vast area that was to be called Oregon … [as] a counterpoise in the equilibrium of two empires. That equilibrium need only be preserved; if it were not upset, then the westward advance of the American people was quite sure to make Oregon a part of the United States. Asloria was the final addition to the counterpoise against which Great Britain … could make but insufficient headway.