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John Jacob Astor, born at Walldorf, July 17, 1763, was the youngest of four sons. His father, Jacob Astor, was a small farmer, who likewise followed the trade of a butcher. The eldest, George Peter Astor, left the parental roof at an early age, and found employment in London with an uncle engaged in the manufacture of musical instruments, under the style and firm of Astor & Broadwood, of which firm, George Peter ultimately became a partner. The firm was eminently successful and the business is still carried on, and Broadwood, Broadwood & Co. are to-day among the foremost of English piano manufacturers. Henry Astor, the second son, born in 1754, was the first of the family who came to America. It is said he came to this country during the Revolutionary War as assistant to the purser of a British frigate, the "Belle Poule" (taken from the French), which frequented this port during the war, and generally lay off Dover street wharf. He left the ship, found employment with a butcher, and soon embarked in the business on his own account. In 1783, April 11th, he advertises his horse as "stolen from the subscriber on the night of the 10th instant, from the door of Israel Seamen's, Roosevelt street, a dark brown horse, about fifteen hands high, a small star on his forehead, the hair worn off his breast by a collar, trots and carries well; saddle and doublecurb bridle on the horse when stolen. Three guineas reward for the horse, saddle, and bridle. For the thief, horse, saddle, and bridle, ten guineas will be paid by Henry Ashdoor." We find by old records of the Common Council, that down to 1801, he was styled indifferently: Henry Ashdoor, Henry Ashdore, Henrich Astor, and Henry Astor. He does not appear as a buyer of real estate on the Records at the Register's office till 1803, and then always as Henry Astor.
Shortly after the peace in 1783 he became a citizen, and married Dorothea, the stepdaughter of John Pessinger, a brother butcher, who occupied stall No. 1, at the Fly Market, which was situated at the foot of Maiden Lane, and ran from Pearl street to the water. Maiden Lane in those days was quite a street of markets; the Old Oswego Market stood at the north-east corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, running down Maiden Lane as far as Little Greene street. In this market, it is said, Henry Astor first sold meat. In 1790, however, we find him at the Fly Market; in the month of May in that year the inhabitants around the Market
petitioned "that the stall of Henry Astor, butcher, be removed to the lower market," which was granted. This stall of Astor's stood across the head of the upper market, and no doubt tended to block up the entrance gangway, which caused its removal. The lower market was nearest the water and was known as the fish market. With the establishment of Henry in New York, the name of Astor took root in America.
John Jacob Astor was the last of the brothers to leave his village home. About 1779, when Meyer Anselm Rothschild, then thirty-six years old, had fairly started on the road to fortune at Frankfort, young Astor, a boy of sixteen, left his village with no baggage but what he could carry, made his way as best he could to the coast of Holland, and embarked in a small vessel for London, where he found a home and employment with his brother George Peter. Here he remained four years working in the flute and piano manufactory of Astor & Broadwood. During this period, he mastered the English language (which, however, to the latest day of his life, he always spoke with a German accent), familiarized himself with the ways and customs of the English, and, above all, developed habits of thrift, economy, and industry-the foundations on which he was to erect the greatest fortune of the New World. John Jacob Astor often said, later in life, that he never intended to make England his permanent home, and when he wandered out from his native village, under the promptings of that restless spirit which, since the earliest times, has carried the Teuton to the South and the West, his firm intention was not to rest till he had reached that far-off Land of Promise, whither his brother Henry had already preceded him. The sojourn in London was made necessary by his extreme youth, his ignorance of the English language, and the progress of the Revolutionary War, which kept the revolted colonies in a very unsettled state. On the final signing of the treaty of peace, he made immediate preparations for departure. His scanty savings furnished but a slender capital wherewith to push his fortunes in the New World. Astor & Broadwood gave him a small consignment of German flutes. Captain John Whetten, who died in 1845 at the age of 82, was long a prominent shipmaster out of this port. He used to relate that one day in London he was accosted on board of the ship of which he was mate, by a young German of his own age, who wished to emigrate to America. He had a
conveying a house and two lots on Queen street. Part of the land was subsequently taken by the city, and now forms a portion of Frankfort street. George Diederick, the elder, was in business as late as 1815.
pack of musical instruments, and desired | a steerage passage The appearance and manners of the young German interested him. Their intercourse soon became confidential, and Whetten frankly advised him to prefer another vessel lying close at hand, in which he would make the passage more comfortably than in his. The advice was adopted. Among the cabin passengers of this vessel were some officers of the Hudson Bay Company. These gentlemen, in their walks on the quarter-deck, naturally conversed together about the trade in furs with the North American Indians, and of these conversations enough dropped in the neighborhood of the main-hatch to give to the astute young German steerage passenger a glimpse of the wide avenue to wealth upon which he subsequently entered.
The ship, commanded by Captain Jacob Stout, set sail from London in November, 1783, and was bound for Baltimore. The vessel did not reach the Chesapeake till January; inside the Capes, she was beset with ice and threatened with shipwreck. It is related that on this occasion, when all the passengers were in fear and trembling, young Astor went below and soon re-appeared on deck in his best suit of clothes; being questioned as to why he made this singular change at so trying a moment, he replied: "If the ship is wrecked and I succeed in reaching shore, I shall have saved my good clothes; if I am lost, I shall have no use for them." The ship was frozen in the bay for nearly a month, and it was not till March, 1784, that John Jacob first set foot on the shore of the New World, in Baltimore Harbor. He immediately made his way to New York, where he found his brother Henry, selling meat in the Fly Market. Henry took him to the house of George Diederick, a German baker in Queen street, in which he passed his first night in New York, and which for some time was his home. The site of the old house is now known as 351 Pearl street, on the south-west corner of Frankfort street, which at that time was not cut through to Pearl, or Queen, street. The property belonged to the Lawrences, of Flushing, L. I., and was subsequently bought by Diederick, as we find by the following deed on record at the Register's office, ELIZABETH LAWRENCE
John Jacob Astor arrived in New York at a period of great depression. Some fifteen thousand refugees, men, women, and children, left New York, Long Island, and Staten Island for Nova Scotia, St. John's, and Abasco, during the latter part of 1783, among them many persons of fortune and landed estates. These estates Astor began to buy, whenever he could spare the money, as soon as he got a little ahead in the world. The evacuation of New York by the British troops took away some of Henry Astor's best customers, and his butcher business was not in a very flourishing condition in the spring of 1784, when John Jacob arrived. However, he found employment for Jacob, whom we find beating skins in Gold street soon after his arrival, and subsequently pursuing the same occupation in the employ of Mr. Wilson, at Old Slip. While thus engaged, he made it his particular study to gather information respecting the nature of the fur trade; made himself acquainted with the different kinds of skins, and learned to estimate their value and their quality. From Mr. Wilson he passed into the employ of Robert Bowne, a Quaker, long established in the business of buying, curing, and exporting peltries. His brother Henry assisted him with his first stock in trade, which he sold and traded with those who brought furs and skins to market, on board of sloops and other vessels lying around at the different docks.
Meanwhile, his consignment of flutes from Astor & Broadwood sold slowly. There were at that time two persons in New York who pretty much monopolized the musical instrument business. Dodd, at 66 Queen street, made a specialty of musical instruments, while Joseph Wilks, at his store No. 235 Queen street, sold, with other goods, harpsicords, forte-pianos, and barrel organs. Young Astor, with no place of business, and no acquaintance among those most likely to buy musical instruments, finally left his flutes at the printing-office of Samuel Loudon's "New York Packet" for sale. The sale of goods on commission by printers was an old custom in New York, dating back to the establishment of the first papers. Accordingly, we find as early as September
20, 1784, the following advertisement in the | iner, in 1763, and the deed is recorded in "New York Packet:"
Lib. 510, pages 208-11, Register's office, New York city. When Pearl street was widened on this side, a portion of the front of this lot was taken away.
"German Flutes of a superior Quality to be sold at this Printing-office."
This advertisement is very steadily inserted from that date "off and on" down to
March 10, 1785, when it disappears. The flutes had by this time been disposed of, and the proceeds gradually invested in furs, with which Astor returned to England, probably during that year, to make permanent arrangements for the future shipping of furs, and to get the agency of the house of Astor & Broadwood in New York.
On his return to New York he hired from the widow Sarah Todd, two rooms in her house, 81 Queen street, and for the first time started business on his own account. This house was situated not far from George Diederick, the baker, where he found his first home, a little further down and on the opposite side of the way. He announces his new enterprise to the public on Monday, May 22, 1786, in the following advertisement, which we find in the "New York Packet" of that date:
We very much doubt if Mr. Dodd, at 66 Queen street, or Mr. Joseph Wilks, at 235 Queen street, read that advertisement with pleasure. They could no longer have things entirely their own way in the musical line. Astor had probably begun operations at 81 Queen street on the 1st of May, 1786.
This advertisement, in which he styles himself simply Jacob Astor-the John is assumed later-appears from time to time in the paper till toward the end of 1787. He was married (probably in 1786) to Sarah Todd, the daughter of his landlady, Mrs. Todd. His first child, Magdalen Astor, was born in 1788, probably at 81 Queen
John Jacob Astor's first purchase of real estate in the city of New York was made five years after his arrival. The following is an extract from the deed on record at the Register's office:
The house known as 362 Pearl street now stands on the site of the house where John Jacob Astor first started in business, and where he passed the first years of his married life. The old house and the lot, 171 feet deep, were purchased by Adam Todd, mar
As an extra precaution, we find at the end of, and accompanying, the deed, a
"Jacob Astor, No. 81 Queen street, Two doors receipt for the whole purchase-money, signed by Bolmer and witnessed by Henry Astor. It was a cash purchase.
The second real estate purchase of John Jacob Astor was as follows:
from the Friend's Meeting-House, Has just imported from London An elegant assortment of Musical instruments, such as piano-Fortes, spinnets, piano-forte Guittars, guittars; the best of violins, German Flutes, clarinets, hautboys, fifes; the best Roman violin strings and all other kind of strings; music-books and paper, and every other article in the musical line, which he will dispose of on very low terms for cash."
Consideration, two hundred and fifty pounds current money of the State of New York; conveys two lots of ground on the Bowery Lane or road near Elizabeth street. On the occasion of this his first real estate purchase, Jacob Astor (John does not appear till the next deed) was accompanied by his brother Henry, in whose presence the deed was signed, sealed, and delivered.
Deed dated Aug. 14, 1789; Recorded Aug. 17, 1789. Lib. 502 of Conv's, page 45.
Deed dated May 18, 1790;
Consideration, eight hundred and fifty pounds
Smith retired, purchased land, and died at Schenectady very rich. Astor persevered, widening and extending his operations. In 1794-5 these posts were surrendered by a treaty, and Astor, after the lapse of six years, had amassed something like $250,000. He was now a richer man than his brother Henry, who, in the beginning, used to indorse for him at bank. But Henry, too, had prospered and flourished. He had become a great buyer of cattle, and, through his skillful combinations and bold operations, for a time and to a certain degree controlled the New York market. He was probably among the first to get up in this city what we would now call a corner in cattle." Less enterprising butchers felt themselves injured and sought relief at the hands of the Common Council. In 1801 a petition was presented to the Board signed by many of the principal butchers in several of the markets, against a butcher who neglected his business in the market to forestall cattle. It says "that Henry Astor and certain others, who are licensed butchers, leaving the care of their stalls and the selling of their meats to journeymen who are not licensed butchers, are in the constant practice of forestalling the market, by riding into the country to meet the droves of cattle coming to the New York markets, and purchasing cattle for other stalls besides his own," etc., etc., etc., etc. What action the Board took to protect these butchers who could not protect themselves, we are unable to say. Henry Astor then occupied stall No. 57 at the Fly Market. A stall in this market was at that time of considerable value. Henry Astor's name first appears on the records as a buyer of real estate in 1803, to wit:
better to enable him to carry out his designs of extending the trade into the interior, and competing with the British Northwest Fur Company and Hudson Bay Company. The outposts of this new company stretched into new and hitherto untrodden fields, draining a country stocked with beaver, otter, and buffalo. Having now, at the age of forty-six, acquired a fortune sufficiently large to satisfy the ambition of most men, he conceived a bolder enterprise than any he had yet undertaken, which was no other than to attempt to control the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains. To this end, the first post, Astoria, was established in 1810, at the mouth of the Columbia River, by a party of sixty men, under the command of Mr. W. P. Hunt. Commodities for the supply of this settlement were to be conveyed in ships from New York, which were likewise to be freighted with various articles of merchandise, which were to be exchanged for furs at the Russian settlements further north. These, in turn, were to be exported to Canton, at this time a favorable market for furs, and exchanged for China goods, silks, teas, etc., etc. Meanwhile, the war with Great Britain broke out. The "Tonquin," the first, and the "Lark," the third vessel dispatched to Astoria, were lost. This stupendous project of Mr. Astor's appears to have been attended with disaster throughout. The fort at Astoria was captured, and just at the close of the war, as it was about to be restored, it was sold to the agents of the Northwest Fur Company, through the treachery of one of his partners, a Scotchman named McDougal. When the news of the capture of Astoria reached Mr. Astor, he said, with a cheerful smile, "I am ruined."
In the year 1809, John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company, the
From the time of the establishment of the American Fur Company, Mr. Astor became largely engaged in commerce. His ships freighted with furs for France, England, Germany, and Russia, and with peltries, ginseng, and dollars for China, now plowed every sea to receive these products. of the New World, and exchange them for the commodities of the Old. Mr. Astor's instructions to his captains were minute and particular. He evinced almost as intimate a knowledge of the various markets in which he traded as though he had been himself a resident of each. He neglected nothing, giving his personal attention to the very smallest details.
Notwithstanding the magnitude and success of Mr. Astor's business operations, the greatest occasion of his wealth was the in
creased value of real estate consequent on the growth of New York city. He never mortgaged, but constantly bought at foreclosure sales. In this mode his wealth was multiplied far beyond the natural accumulation by ordinary interest. The conveyances to John Jacob Astor during the fifty-nine years which elapsed between his first and last purchase of real estate in this city form seven pages of closely printed matter in the Index of Conveyances on file in the Register's office. After the death of his father, the late William B. Astor figures as a very considerable purchaser of New York city real estate. The last conveyance to John Jacob Astor was made shortly before his death, in 1848, to wit:
JOHN J. V. WESTERVELT,) Deed dated Feb. 26, Sheriff, 1848. Recorded To February 29, 1848. JOHN JACOB Astor. Liber 502 of Conv's, page 242.
which conveyed the unexpired term of a twenty-six years' lease of property in King street, near Varick, Mr. Astor owning the fee, and having originally made the lease.
At the time of his death, in 1848, his property was variously estimated at from $30,000,000 to $40,000,000, quite a change from that of "John Jacob Astor, Furrier, at 149 Broadway." During the greater part of his life, Mr. Astor lived on Broadway in one of the houses comprising the block which then occupied the site of the Astor House. His store was in the rear of the house, with the entrance on Vesey street. Here he lived till he made preparations for building the Astor House, when he moved to an unpretending two-story brick house on Broadway, opposite Niblo's, near the modest office, 85 Prince street, where the entire business of the Astor estate is transacted. Here he lived till the day of his death, March 29, 1848. Henry Astor chose the east side of the city as a place of residence. We find him at 31 Bowery Lane in 1789. All his interests and associations were in this neighborhood, and to this neighborhood he remained faithful. Two sisters of John Jacob Astor came to this country. One, Catherine, was married in Germany before she came here to George Ehninger, a cordial distiller, who was among the first to undertake that business in the United States. He died through an accident at the distillery. After his death, his widow married Michael Miller, who embarked in the business of cordial distilling, and carried it on for years at No. 11