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John Jacob Astor’s Role in American Money

John Jacob Astor was the founder of America’s first great fortune, and he did it the old-fashioned way: through brains, hard work, and political string-pulling.

Astor was born in Germany in 1763 and came to New York at the age of 20. He parlayed a music store business into real estate, and after 1800, he got into fur trading and importing goods from China.

When U.S. companies were barred from foreign trade in 1807, Astor had a clerk pretend to be a Chinese VIP who wanted to go to China for his grandfather’s funeral. The trip was approved, and of course the ship came back with a fortune in Chinese goods.

During the War of 1812, Astor lost his trading post in Oregon — the first American post on the Pacific coast — to the British. But after helping to finance the U.S. war effort, Astor got Congress to pass a law banning “foreigners” from the U.S. fur trade. That allowed him to buy out his Canadian partners cheaply and establish a lucrative monopoly.

By the time he died in 1848, Astor had amassed a $30 million fortune, some of which went to establish the New York Public Library. Astor became synonymous with wealth in America. Oh, the name of that Oregon trading post? Astoria, of course.

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