John Astor

John Astor ALS with stunning Fur trading content, negotiating a deal during the European trade restrictions

Bi-fold ALS, 7.75" x 9.5", scripted entire in Astor's hand on the first page, with the balance of the pages left blank. Docketed to verso of second page. Tipped into a backing sheet with second leaf inlaid to the page. Signed and dated by Astor "New York 24 March 1810", and signed in full signature of "John Jacob Astor". Expected folds, offsetting to first page, else near fine. Accompanied by a fine engraving of John Astor, 5.25" x 8.25" laid into a page, along with documented provenance as noted below.

John Astor's humble beginnings were in his distant past by the time he wrote this letter. By 1810 Astor had been operating in the fur trade for about 30 years and had amassed an enormous fortune. Astor had taken advantage of the Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States in 1794, which opened new markets in Canada and the Great Lakes region. In London, Astor at once made a contract with the North West Company, who from Montreal rivaled the trade interests of the Hudson's Bay Company, then based in London. Astor imported furs from Montreal to New York and shipped them to Europe By 1800, he had amassed almost a quarter of a million dollars, and had become one of the leading figures in the fur trade. His agents worked throughout the western areas and were ruthless in competition.

This letter penned by Astor to John Mason esq, encompasses numerous revealing points. The first of which Astor is referencing the purchase of Deer skins in New Orleans ("orleans"). New Orleans was a central port, and a hub by which furs and other exports were exported to Europe. Fur traders floated up and down the Mississippi in flat bottom boat/barges whereby they could move back and forth between the Indians upriver and sail back downstream with their precious furs to New Orleans. By this time, Astor was a formidable institution in the Fur trade, but by 1809 curtailment of American trade with Europe created a deerskin glut in the united States. Superintendent Mason, (the addressee of Astor's letter) noted the problem early in his term and ordered the factors at the most active factories to shop buying the unsalable skins. However his wishes were ignored by the fur traders because refusal to buy skins would alienate their Indian partners. Mason had also told his agents to shave, treat and store the skins they had on hand, rather than shipping them onward. Despite some spoilage most of the deerskins survived and by February 1810, the Office of Indian Trade had nearly 109 tons of skins warehoused in New Orleans.

With European trade still restricted by an 1809 Non-Intercourse act, Superintendent Mason decided he had to dump these pelts on the market at any price he could get. Mason approached John Jacob Astor who had built at the time a fur trading network that extended from Leipzig to Saint Louis and had a net worth exceeding a quarter million dollars.

This ALS is pursuant to Astor's response to Mason in which it was known that he had offered to buy all of Mason's deerskins for 4-10 cents per pound, representing a steep discount (30-40 percent) from market price. Ultimately when Mason responded and tried to negotiate, the deal fell through and he sold the surplus skins in New Orleans for whatever the market would bear. To Mason's good fortune, the market picked up later that year and he managed to sell new skins for 32-40 cents per pound.

This letter to Mason is shown in full below:

"Sir, New York 24 March 1810

I have your esteemed letter of the 20th.

If you thought it for the interest of the U.S

to have the Deer skins sold here an

the terms (illegible) made last proposed

by you when I had the pleasure of

seeing you I would agree to bid

the price which was than agreed on

for the detterment quantitys but I

would not like to engage so long a

time before the skins could be brought

from orleans here to find my self

to any price, but if you will have

the sale made here you may in that

case consider me as agreeing to bid as

above mentioned. I am Sir with

Respect your very humble servt

John Jacob Astor

P.S. will you have the goodness to inform me in case you do not sell here what the terms of the sale at orleans will be?"

(And as noted above, we know this deal fell ultimately through, and the skins were sold to the firm W. & Morris ...)

However, in the background of this political theater, and while he was negotiating with Mason, Astor simultaneously organized the Pacific Fur Company in June 1810. While he managed the business in New York, he sent two groups of his employees west—one by sea to carry supplies and initiate coastal trading, and one by land to found a string of fur posts across North America. Between them, the two groups of Astorians established a terminal fort on the Pacific Coast from which to trade with China. In September 1810, Pacific Fur Company partners Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart sailed from New York on the Tonquin. The trip was not a smooth one. At the Falkland Islands, Robert Stuart threatened ship captain Jonathan Thorn at gunpoint in order to save the lives of several fur company men .

In September 1810, Pacific Fur Company partners Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart sailed from New York on the Tonquin. The trip was not a smooth one. At the Falkland Islands, Robert Stuart threatened ship captain Jonathan Thorn at gunpoint in order to save the lives of several fur company men

Astor, not known for dabbling in one business adventure at a time began buying land in New York in 1799 and acquired sizable holdings along the waterfront. After the start of the 19th century, flush with China trade profits, he became more systematic, ambitious, and calculating by investing in New York real estate. In 1803, he bought a 70-acre farm that ran west of Broadway to the Hudson River between 42nd and 46th streets.

Astor’s grand venture was plagued by mismanagement and conflicts with Native people but most of all by the War of 1812, and the partners’ fear of attacks by British ships. Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company, as well as all his other ventures, and instead used the money to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate. It was this decision that launched his financial success into the stratosphere. Astor correctly predicted New York's rapid growth northward on Manhattan Island, and he purchased more and more land beyond the then-existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land, but leased it to others for rent and their use. After retiring from his business, Astor spent the rest of his life as a patron of culture. At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. His estimated net worth, if calculated as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time, would have been equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars, making him the fifth-richest person in American history.

With his success in his later years, his life was spent instead managing his investments and entering the world of philanthropy. He supported the ornithologist John James Audubon in his studies, art work, and travels , and bequeathed $400,000 to build the Astor Library for the New York public, which was later consolidated with other libraries to form the New York Public Library.

An important letter, revealing a significant period in history highlighting the illustrious fur trade and the complex embargos and politics of the era.

Provenance: This item was recently discovered in an extra illustrated volume of “History of the City of New York” by Mary L. Booth, New York W. R. C. Clark, 1867. Originally two volumes, the monumental task of expanding the work to 21 volumes by none other than Emery E. Childs esquire of New York City. In volume 1 of this work exists a lovely india ink Drawing of Mary L. Booth along with a notation ”presented by her to E E C” in pencil. Next to the title page we find an original letter of Booth to Childs dated April 4, 1872 “ I am in receipt of your favor of the 4th inst., and am grateful to hear that you are taking the trouble to illustrate my History of the City of New York in the manner you describe. I shall be happy to see you, should you favor me with a callas I am usually in my office during business hours and should be pleased to facilitate your Enterprise by any means in my power”

It is assumed that the book took several years to assemble at which point, assumedly through Childs, it made its way to Senator Charles B. Farwell of Chicago who took the seat of John A. Logan in 1887. Farwell had an extensive library that fortunately survived the great Chicago fire in 1871 having been housed in his Lakeside home. In the American Bibliopolist of November 1871 there is an article about the devastation to libraries caused by the tragedy . “Mr C. B. Farwell’s library is also fortunately far out from the city, at his country house, and is safe, The same remark will also apply to the extensive collection of books and curiosities belonging to Mr. E. E. Childs.” This establishes the Chicago connection between Childs and Farwell.

That these letters were preserved for over 140 years and have never been on the market for that period is remarkable on many levels. It is the state of being wedged in these volumes that also account for what is mostly the pristine state of preservation.

Item: 61990

Price: $3,000.00
John AstorJohn AstorJohn Astor
John Astor
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