John Jacob Astor, a merchant of the city of New York, born at Walldorf, near Heidelberg, July 17, 1763, died in New York, March 29, 1848. He was the youngest of the four sons of a peasant, and his boyhood was passed in work upon his father's farm. Two of his brothers had left their home, one of them to establish himself as a maker of musical instruments in London, and the other to settle in America. At the age of 16 Astor accepted an invitation from the former to join him in his business, and he, walking to the coast of Holland, embarked for London in a Dutch smack. In London he worked industriously till 1783, when, a few months after the recognition of the independence of the United States by Great Britain, he sailed for Baltimore, taking with him a few hundred dollars' worth of musical instruments to dispose of on commission. On the voyage he made acquaintance with a furrier, in accordance with whose suggestions he exchanged his musical instruments in New York for furs, with which he hastened back to London, where he disposed of them to great advantage.
He soon returned to New York and established himself there in the fur trade, prospering so fast that in a few years he was able to send his furs to Europe and the East in his own ships, which brought back cargoes of foreign produce to be disposed of in New York. At the beginning of the century he was worth $250,000, and he now began to revolve colossal schemes of supplying with furs all the markets of the world, and of planting towns and spreading civilization in the wilds of the western continent. It was his aim to organize the fur trade from the lakes to the Pacific by establishing numerous trading posts, making a central depot at the mouth of the Columbia river, and then, by obtaining one of the Sandwich islands as a station, to supply the Chinese and Indian markets with furs sent directly from the Pacific coast. In prosecuting this gigantic scheme it is said that he expected only outlay during the first 10 years, and unprofitable returns during the second 10, but after that a net annual result of about $1,000,000. The settlement of Astoria was founded in 1811, but the scheme was never fully carried out. Astor early began to make investments in real estate in New York, and in the rapid growth of the city the value of some portions of his property nearly centupled.
He erected many handsome private and public buildings. His fortune has been estimated at $20,000,000. During his whole career he hardly made a misstep through defect of his own judgment, and his memory retained for years the minutest details. He lived during nearly a quarter of a century in retirement, in the society of his family and of eminent practical and literary men, his mind retaining its vigor after his bodily strength had become greatly enfeebled. He gave many liberal donations during his lifetime, and his will contained numerous charitable provisions. One of these was $50,000 for the benefit of the poor of Walldorf, his native village. Among his most useful bequests was that of $400,000 to found the Astor library in the city of New York, the fruit of a long cherished purpose, and of much consultation in the latter part of his life. (See Astor Library).