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Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival - Peter Stark Astoria is a tale of two journeys. It is an adventure of the highest order, and with Peter Stark as your guide, it is one of the best non-fiction books you will read for a long time.

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase had brought the young United States all the land draining into the Mississippi (at least according to our side of the story). The President wanted to know all he could about what he had bought, particularly as there were still some disagreements going on over the breadth of the purchase. Thus the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, in 1804, and the later Red River Expedition and Pike Expedition provided Jefferson the information about this new land he needed to negotiate with France, and others. But what lay beyond? Opportunity, resources, and vast swaths of land.

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Peter Stark - image taken from Random House

In the early 1800s, John Jacob Astor was one of the richest men of his time. He had made a fortune trading North American furs in Europe, and had begun trading with China as well. What he had in mind was to take advantage of the fur resources of the Northwest and establish a triangle trade. Northwest furs to the Orient, porcelain from China to London and New York and other goods from there back to the Northwest. His aim was to monopolize trading on the Pacific Rim, at a time when Lewis and Clark had been across the country only a few years prior. He involved Jefferson, who also had a more global vision than other men of the day. The Northwest was unclaimed by westerners, (no thought was given, per usual, to the native people who were actually living there) and was considered available for the taking. For Astor it was to be a base for establishing a trade monopoly. Jefferson saw an opportunity to spread democracy to the west coast, and encouraged Astor. To accomplish his aim, it would be necessary for Astor to establish a base of operations. He decided on the area near the mouth of the Columbia River. He put together two groups of men to reach the spot, one to travel by sea the other to cross the continent by land. It is their adventures that form the bulk of the story, and what a story it is.

Were this a novel, the dueling road trips would both be tales of self-discovery. This is a case where reality exceeds fiction. The character of many of the travelers is revealed in how they handle the extreme stresses to which they are subjected. Following the development, or revelation of their characters, for good or ill, is one of the great pleasures to be had in reading Astoria.

The ship Astor sent was the Tonquin, a 290 ton bark. He selected as its captain the young (31) US Navy lieutenant Jonathan Thorn. Thorn had been a military hero, serving with distinction in the Barbary Wars, and Astor wanted someone who could fend off potential attacks. Our friends across the pond, engaged in a tiff with Napoleon, had taken to stopping vessels in international waters and shanghaiing sailors or passengers who were British subjects to fight the French. Rule Britannia was not being sung by the crews of American-flag ships. This aqueous stop-and-frisk imposition would be one of the causes of the War of 1812.

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An engraving of the Tonquin at the entrance to the Columbia, from the Oregon historical Society

While the captain was the right sort for dealing with a military crew and worked well within the rigid specifications of a military regimen, he was not so adept at controlling a crew that was not exactly military, and most of whom were not even American citizens. Also aboard were shareholders in Astor