Monday, September 12, 2016

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark

Lewis and Clark was a walk in the park by comparison
The Astoria Expedition of 1810 to 1813 established the first permanent (non-Native) American settlement on the Pacific Coast. The expedition was financed by wealthy New Yorker John Jacob Astor, who dreamed of monopolizing the Western fur trade and raking in billions doing business with the Chinese. Astor planned a two-pronged attack on the West Coast, with separate parties traveling by land and sea to rendezvous at the mouth of the Columbia River. Following closely on the heels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Astoria Expedition was every bit as epic an adventure as that earlier journey. Besides a lot of historical markers on the side of Western highways, however, the story of the Astorian pioneers, while once familiar to the American public, has since faded into relative obscurity compared to the legendary status of Lewis and Clark. With his 2014 book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, author Peter Stark aims to resurrect this important story from American history and restore it to the prominence it deserves.

In many ways, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, however arduous, was an example of a trip where almost everything went right. There was only one fatality, from illness. Conflict with the Indians was minimal. They never drifted terribly far off course. The Astoria Expedition, on the other hand, is an example where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for both the sea-faring party and the cross-country trekkers. Internal conflict, an ambiguous chain of command, poor decision-making or a lack thereof, faulty wilderness survival skills, undiplomatic relations with the Native population, the outbreak of the War of 1812, and more all added up to a mission impossible with a high body count. Although Lewis and Clark’s crew suffered from hunger and privation, their troubles pale in comparison to the perils encountered by the Astorians. Stark does a good job of bringing these hardships to vivid reality, but he’s always a little too ready to shift focus back to Astor in his cozy Manhattan brownstone and praise the fur baron’s vision of global domination. Stark strikes a pretty good balance between happenings on the East and West coasts, but I would have preferred a little more of the microhistory of the travelers and their survival tales, and a little less of the relentless affirmation of Astor’s importance as a pioneer of globalization.

Though several members of the Astorian land and sea parties kept diaries of the journey, there seems to be a lot less information available on this expedition than that of Lewis and Clark. Stark is forced to skip over periods of time or to resort to filling in blank spots with speculation. All historians do this to some extent, but one wishes there were a greater pool of primary source material from which to draw. Documentation was one of the primary missions of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as it had specific scientific, geographic, and diplomatic mandates to fulfill. The Astoria Expedition, on the other hand, was largely a commercial venture, and its members were primarily focused not on exploration or diplomacy but simply on the getting there. In terms of an adventure story, the Astoria trip may be the grittier and more treacherous quest, but it lacks some of the epic grandeur and Enlightenment spirit of its predecessor.

Stark’s book is an illuminating reinvestigation and compelling retelling of this important episode in America history. It’s also just a great wilderness adventure story. Anyone interested in Western expansion or the early exploration of the American continent will certainly find it an enjoyable read.
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