_This post was written by Sherry Cortes, Summer Intern in the Department of Manuscripts
Portrait of John Jacob Astor by Gilbert Stuart, published by William Waldorf Astor, 1899. PR 52 Portrait File
Born in Walldorf, Germany in 1763, John Jacob Astor was the son of a butcher who traveled to America seeking to improve his condition in life. It was not long before he made his way to New York City, a still fledgling town at the tip of a small, mostly undeveloped island. It was here that he would carve out a fortune using a sharp business acumen and pure foresight, eventually becoming a household name synonymous with New York and wealth.
Starting low on the totem pole, Astor labored as a fur worker before his employer recognized his abilities and sent him into upstate New York to trade with the Native Americans for their furs. From there he quickly rose in the ranks and soon owned his own shop. Once this business began to flourish, Astor sought investment opportunities to grow his wealth. At the urging of his brother, Henry Astor, he began buying property in New York in 1799. However, real-estate investment remained a side-note to his fur trade, which was to become the American Fur Company in 1808, and one of the largest companies in the country until its dissolution in 1837. Documents for the American Fur Company can be found in the manuscript collection at the New-York Historical Society.
While Astor increased his monetary value, he also improved his social connections, creating relationships that would be integral to his future real estate dealings. He became a Mason, where he connected with Governor George Clinton, bought a share of the Tontine Coffeehouse, and made important friendships with Stephen Van Rensselaer and Aaron Burr. Thanks to these acquaintances, Astor was able to slide with relative ease into the upper echelons of society, although there were always plenty of remarks made about the German immigrant who wiped his mouth on his dining neighbor’s sleeve during a meal.
Map of lots of land from deed sold by John Jacob Astor to Gilbert Coutant at the corner of Bowery, Art Street, and Lafayette Place in 1828. (MS 25, Astor Family Papers.)
It wasn’t until the 1830s when Astor turned his focus from fur to solely real estate. The entrepreneur was quick to learn tricks of the real-estate game, including ‘lending’ money to landowners. One notable deal made was when he lent money to his friend, Aaron Burr, who needed quick cash after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. In return, Burr turned over the lease of his tract of land, now Greenwich Village, which can be found in the Astor Family Papers at the New-York Historical Society.
It was a particular talent of Astor’s to see a plot of land and its potential for profit, no matter how worthless it might have seemed at the time. He would buy chunks of property for rock-bottom prices, signing his tenants to long term leases of usually twenty one years. Should the tenant wish to build a house on the property, he could do so at his own expense. Once the lease ran out, Astor would either buy the house based on a valuation, which usually turned out much lower than what it should have, or he would renew the lease with a much higher rate of rent than before. He was strict with his tenants, allowing no leniency for those in arrears, thus earning him a reputation as shrewd and hard-hearted.
Map of lots of land from deed purchased by John Jacob Astor from the Protestant Episcopal Church between Greenwich and Washington Streets in 1806. (MS 25, Astor Family Papers.)
But it was this cold and calculating personality that helped John Jacob Astor become the wealthiest man in the world. By the time of his death in 1848, he owned a vast portion of New York City, although his real-estate ventures were not limited to the Island of Manhattan. Astor also owned properties from New Jersey to the city of Astoria in Oregon. Not bad for a poor immigrant from a small village in Germany.