Astoria

I recently finished reading Peter Stark’s history, Astoria. I seem to remember hearing about it from my friend Bill, but that was quite a while ago. If my memory serves me well, I saw the book on sale in digital form shortly after hearing about it from Bill, so I scooped up my own copy for Kindle. But I never really got into a flow with the narrative (partly because of personal life circumstances, partly because of the story). So I read the book in little pieces, over the course of two or three years. Now that our family is hoping to visit Astoria (Oregon) this summer, however, I felt like I had the push I needed to finish this book.

It’s still crazy to consider the colonial era. People saw the world as a blank canvas, where they could blaze new trails and establish new societies. They didn’t really take existing geographical constraints and cultural clashes into account. Consequently, they made a lot of mistakes. And the story of Astoria makes one wonder how any colonial endeavors ever actually succeeded.

The events in Astoria took place shortly after the American Revolution. A businessman named John Jacob Astor devised a plan to establish a fur-trading empire in the Pacific Northwest. Nobody knew that those parts would someday become a part of the United States of America. The region could have just as easily ended up as British territory, or Indian territory, or an independent nation-state. Astor seemed to have been angling for an independent nation-state (albeit one closely aligned with the United States). But his top priority was making money. And in that way, the book follows a very American trajectory.

The strongest figure in the book was John Jacob Astor, the “angel investor” in the project. Ironically, though, he never set foot in the Pacific Northwest! Instead he assembled a bizarre mix of French-Canadian voyageurs, English sailors, American fur-traders, and Native American guides. He supplied them with weapons, food, trading goods, and money, and then he sent them around the southern tip of South America to the Oregon coast. They established a settlement which still remains — at least in some form — so they didn’t completely fail. But they made a lot of mistakes. Miscommunication abounded. Circumstances didn’t break their way. And as a result, Astor’s endeavor ultimately failed.

I didn’t really feel much sympathy for Astor or any of the other figures from the story. They were generally unlikeable, and their mission was not inspirational. I wasn’t at all sad when the book reached its tragic conclusion.

So does that mean it wasn’t a good book? I don’t know. It probably won’t make my Top Ten list for the year. Still, there was something very human about the story. I feel like there must be some lessons from Astoria that would still benefit the United States today. But I’m probably not going to be dedicating much time to figuring out (or teaching) those lessons. It just feels like a fool’s errand to parse out all the missteps of that fools’ errand that was Astoria.

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