Riveting and Insightful: Peter Stark’s Astoria

Stark, Peter. Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

As someone who is mostly interested in “Civil War to Civil Rights” history, my interest (and by extension knowledge) usually stops east of the Mississippi and almost always east of the Rockies. Since moving to Oregon last year, I’ve been trying to learn more about Oregon’s history and the history of the American West more broadly. I started by watching Stephen Ives and Ken Burns’ 1996 miniseries The West and followed that up with Stephen Ambrose’s take on the Corps of Discovery, Undaunted Courage. While browsing Powell’s City of Books one rainy Portland Sunday, I saw Peter Stark’s Astoria featured in the recommended section and figured it would help me further my exploration of my new home’s history. I was not disappointed. 

Less than four years after Lewis and Clark returned to the Eastern United States from their fabled journey, enterprising American fur traders were already scheming to take advantage of the fur-rich lands west of the Rockies and the legwork that the Corps of Discovery had done in trying to wrest control of the British fur-trading network of Native American allies. One particularly bold trader was German immigrant and New York real estate magnate John Jacob Astor. Astor of course wanted to make a fortune off of beaver and sea otter pelts, but he also envisioned a global trading web that would take inland furs down the Columbia River and across the Pacific to China, where they would fetch a larger price than in New York or London. From there, Astor’s ships would carry luxury trade goods from China west around the Cape of Good Hope to London and New York, selling the goods at a massive profit. The lynchpin for this trans-Pacific trading empire would be a trading post located at the mouth of the Columbia River where furs from upriver could be collected and loaded onto trade ships along with much-needed supplies for the cross ocean voyage. Astoria tells the story of Astor and his agents’ (unsuccessful) attempts to establish that emporium and trading empire.

Writing Astoria must have presented writer Peter Stark with several unique challenges. First, the efforts to build an American fur-trading colony on the Pacific coast follows three distinct paths: Astor himself, pulling the strings from New York City; an overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt; and sea-going efforts around Cape Horn. Astoria follows each timeline, giving a sense of how events and decisions involving each individual or group would determine the fates of others, all without the ability of easy transcontinental communication. This is best seen following the outbreak of the War of 1812, when each group receives news at wildly different times and is forced to take action on their own without coordinating with others in the network. Relatedly, Astoria does a phenomenal job raising the stakes of the War of 1812, which has too often been dismissed as inconsequential if remembered meaningfully at all. 

Stark also faces the challenge of an almost overwhelming cast of characters. Stark writes with a strikingly riveting style, with sensory and geographic details adding to the reading experience. While clearly intending the book to be readable–and doing a fine job at that–Stark is faced with the sheer number of characters at play in Astor’s dreams of a global trading network. There are Astor and his lieutenants, French-Canadian voyageurs, Scottish and American partners, clerks, sailors, and hunters, not to mention various British rivals in the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies and important political figures in Washington (and even Russia!) that needed to be considered. At times the onslaught of names can be challenging to get straight (especially with McKays, McDougalls, Mackenzies, McClellans, and a host of other Scottish names to keep straight). Stark mitigates this by wisely including a “Cast of Characters” in the book’s preface, which I found helpful throughout.

Finally, Stark faces a fairly substantial challenge in sourcing. The earliest history of the Astoria expedition(s) was written by 19th century writer Washington Irving. Irving had the enormous benefit of being able to interview eye-witnesses and survivors as well contextualize the events having lived through the tumultuous 1810s himself. Irving also knew many of the key players well, giving him unparalleled access to their lives before and after the expeditions. Astor himself commissioned the history and intended it to be an epitaph to “what might have been,” meaning that Irving was a less than objective authority on the expedition. 

While Stark uses Irving’s work to build his own history of the Astoria colony, he complements it with accounts from survivors, journals, and newspaper articles. Occasionally, these sources do not provide the vivid details that Stark would clearly prefer to include in his narrative. Nor do they always answer the questions Stark has, such as whether or not Marie Dorion–a Métis woman who accompanied the overland expedition–had ever met or spoken with Sacagawea or what the final hours aboard the Tonquin were like given there were no survivors. In these cases, Stark makes his “best guesses,” always being careful to let the reader know they are such. Some readers may object to this level of conjecture, but again Stark communicates clearly when he is engaging in guesswork and his assertions are never far-fetched or without a discussion of his reasoning. As someone who is usually subject to historians straying from the likely to the plausible, I did not find any of Stark’s inferences objectionable. In fact, they meshed well with Stark’s style and helped fill in important sensory and contextual details.

Stark also goes a step further than most historians in that he takes time (and ink) to specifically examine the expedition(s) from a psychological and leadership angle. Most histories of exploration or other feats of human endurance that I have read include a discussion of how the physical environment can affect the psyche of those who seek to conquer it. However, Stark’s discussion permeates the entire narrative, bringing in science as well as his personal experiences and prior research to make the psychological twists and turns of his subjects fuller, more compelling, and certainly more accessible than any other similar effort. Stark goes even further in his evaluation of the leadership traits, decisions, and experiences of the Astoria project. Often–especially with a narrative drive like Astoria’s–events can cascade without interruption and reflection, denying the agency of those who shape the course of those events. This is not the case in Astoria. Stark is careful to take a pause at every major juncture, decision, and turning point, analyzing the thought process that went into each outcome. Perhaps most interestingly, Stark examines how certain character traits are strengths during certain situations, helping to bring about positive outcomes, while also serving as liabilities during other situations. At the conclusion of the book, Stark includes a few discussion questions related to his leadership study, making Astoria a perfect fit for a curriculum designed around historically-informed leadership studies.

Even though Astoria is at its core a tragedy, it goes beyond outlining failure and “what could have been.” As is often the case with episodes in history, even catastrophic failure can often lead to silver linings, many of which are not immediately apparent. Such is also the case with the Astoria episode, and Stark makes a point of engaging with the Astoria expedition’s legacy. Beyond fanning the flames of the Oregon Country dispute between Britain and the United States in the first half of the 19th century, the Astoria expedition (or rather its overland retreat) was responsible for discovering South Pass–the route over the Rockies that would lead emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails decades later. My only major disappointment with Astoria lies in the fact that the only mention of this return trip (which was arguably more important to the history of the American West than any other piece of the expedition) lies in the epilogue to the expedition. I would have loved to read a narrative of this harrowing journey that contained the detail and depth of the narrative of the outgoing trip, but alas. 

Finally, as someone who often finds inspiration for research projects in serendipitous means, I greatly enjoyed Astoria’s afterward and epilogue, in which Stark explains the genesis of his project. While doing research for another book, Stark found himself traveling through the remote town of John Day in eastern Oregon. Curious about the peculiar name for a town, Stark did some digging and found out that John Day was a member of a fur-trapping expedition that planned on creating an American colony along the Pacific coast in the early 19th century. As Stark learned more about the Astoria colony, he began to connect its stories to other disparate yet related stories he had previously heard: comments from his father about the Astorians and their trek during a childhood trip to Grand Teton National Park, boating trips along the lakes and rivers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest that mirrored that of French-Canadian voyageurs in the fur trade, and research conducted by family friends who were interested in first contacts along the Pacific Northwest coast. Reading through this synchronicitous “story behind the story” was the perfect cap for an all-around very enjoyable and informative book.

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