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Peter Stark explores a lost Pacific Empire in 'Astoria'

Peter Stark, author
Amy Ragsdale

On Tuesday, author Peter Stark joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh to discuss his book “Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier.”

“Astoria” chronicles a three-year plan constructed by John Jacob Astor, a fur trader, and ex-president Thomas Jefferson to form a trading colony on the Pacific Coast.

Astor was known as a meticulous planner, Stark said. He left Germany as a young man and arrived in the United States after The Revolutionary War. After amassing a fortune from fur trading and in New York real estate, Astor planned and funded a two-prong expedition. One route of the expedition would take place by sea around Cape Horn and the other by land via the Lewis and Clark route. The two paths would finally meet at the mouth of the Columbia River where Astor planned to establish a trade emporium. Jefferson bought into Astor’s attempts and saw the plan as a means to establish the first colony on the west coast, thereby creating a sister democracy in the United States.

Astor’s vision was to send ships carrying goods from New York around Cape Horn to the Pacific Northwest. There, his ships would trade furs with coastal Indians and other fur posts before heading to China in exchange for Chinese luxury goods. The ships would then return to New York with the goods for sale at increased prices from what Astor had originally paid.

“His vision was to have a fleet of ships continuously circling the globe, making tremendous profits at each stop,” Stark explained. “It was a hugely ambitious project and at that point, we have to remember that the west coast was extremely remote from European civilization. To get from New York to the west coast was a 25,000-mile trip around Cape Horn, and the northwest and west coast was still one of the wildest remaining coastlines on earth.”

Both expeditions did reach their destination, but Astor’s dream of creating an emporium remained unfulfilled. However, the west coast region ultimately was recognized as Unites States territory because Astor’s flag had been planted there.

Although it is a portion of American history, Astor’s story is not as recognized as the expedition of Lewis and Clark, Stark said, because of two main reasons. One reason is that after Astor fell short of manifesting his plan, the territory remained in limbo for the next 30 years.  “The second reason that it’s largely forgotten is that it’s so overshadowed by the heroism of Lewis and Clark,” Stark said. “We don’t see how Astor’s vision played out historically. We just see the winners.” 

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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