What it’s about
Those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest inevitably head to Astoria at some point. Perched on the slopes above the mouth of the Columbia River on the Oregon side, the town is a combination of newer urban hip sensibilities (boutique hotels, brewpubs) and a historically gritty mix of Indians, fur traders, explorers, soldiers, settlers, loggers, and fishers. In Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier, Peter Stark, a well-known outdoor writer and adventurer, tells the story of how the multi-millionaire businessman John Jacob Astor and President Thomas Jefferson attempted to create a global trade network by establishing an American fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Jefferson wanted to plant the flag of democracy in the far West, predicting it would spread eastward and meet the expanding nation. Astor foresaw the potential for huge profits and financed two expeditions, one overland and one by sea. Fort Astoria, founded in 1811 a few miles from where Lewis and Clark had spent a very rainy winter in 1805-06, would be the hub of a trade network across the Pacific and around the world. Although the fort ultimately failed, brought low by the War of 1812 and the lack of support from the east, military or otherwise, it was the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific coast and laid the groundwork for the United States’ ultimately successful claim to the region.
Stark tells the story by bouncing back and forth between the overland and seagoing parties, allowing the reader to feel as if they are part of each tale as it unfolds. A motley cast of international characters (yes, immigrants helped extend America’s reach to the West Coast) and the inexperience and hubris of their leaders led to a series of horrors by land and by sea. For John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson, though, these deprivations and deaths (there were plenty) were the fair price paid for American hegemony over global trade. The sacrifice of workers on the altar of corporate profit resonates today.
What I like
Stark accomplishes two important things in this book: he contextualizes Astoria within the political, economic, geographic, and social milieus of the time, and he tells a ripping good story. His journalistic background lends itself well to this complex tale. This is history as it should be told, with a narrative arc, plenty of suspense, and a resolution that, while it may not wrap everything in a pretty box, leaves readers satisfied, and informed. A great read.
“Astor and Jefferson envisioned what we now call a global trade that crisscrossed the Pacific and linked the countries bordering its shores.”
“…there lies a point when bravery shades into arrogance, and arrogance shades into idiocy.”