I understand why Republicans have such a naive faith in capitalists. Certainly, the businessmen or women who risk their own futures on the vagaries of markets and customers deserve respect. But the farther you get from the pain of your own mistakes the less you are a capitalist, and the more an elitist. As proof, I present to you a German flute maker who made his fortune in England, and then doubled it by investing in the American fur trade; John Jacob Astor (above). He made in his life time the modern equivalent of $110 billion - so much money that his fortune survived two hundred years. It survived the great depression, four generations of 20th century “death taxes” and two world wars, and the great recession of 2007, so that his distant heirs are still enjoying its benefits. Astor’s “genius” was that he saw the American fur trade was not about fur, it was about dope.
See, post-revolutionary war American did not have enough customers to support a native industry. America had to be an exporter. Her nearest customers were in Europe. But by 1810, hunters had so decimated eastern populations of beaver, otter, squirrel and fox, that trappers were shipping furs fifteen hundred miles just to reach an Atlantic port. Overland transportation costs now made American fur a luxury item in Europe. But, and this was Astor’s genius, the west coast of North America was still filled with fur, swimming and walking around. And just across the Pacific were millions of Chinese opium addicts. And Astor saw the connection between those two.
Plugged into the global English banking system, Astor realized he could buy furs in the Pacific Northwest from native Americans for the price of some fish hooks and axes, sell them in China and Japan for working capital, with which he could buy Afghanistan opium, which could be sold in China at an enormous profit. All he had to do was buy enough British politicians to send the Royal Navy to force the Chinese to leave his opium fleets alone. That was what the British meant by Freedom of the Seas. And the real magic was that Astor never had to go to any of those places himself and look dead otters or dead addicts in the face. He hired others to do that. Of course, it turns out, working at a distance has its own price.
To put his plan in motion Astor hired two men. First he dispatched Wilson Hunt, who was a New Jersey businessman (and a junior partner), at the head of 64 French Canadian trappers, to head overland for the Columbia River. And then he convinced the U.S. Navy to loan him Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, hero of the battle of Tripoli. And it turns out Astor was a really bad judge of character. Neither of these guys had any business running anything.
Thorn left first, on 8 September, 1810 in command of the 290 ton, 10 gun ship, the Tonquin. She carried 34 seamen, French Canadian trappers and clerks, and everything needed to set up Astor’s fur collecting station at the mouth of the Columbia River. But barely had they passed out onto the Atlantic when Captain Thorn turned into Captain Bligh. He cursed the crew for singing a sea ditty. And when Alexander McKay, another junior partner in the venture, commented on the lousy food, Thorn called him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit.” That night McKay wrote in his notebook “I fear we are in the hands of a maniac” McKay had no idea.
Wilson Hunt and his party left St. Louis on 21 October, 1810, but traveled only 450 miles up the Missouri River before winter forced him to camp just south of present day St. Joseph, Missouri. They were in birch bark canoes and the plan was to follow the Lewis and Clark trail over the Rocky Mountains. But over the long dark winter months Hunt started to think for himself, a mistake which was to prove disastrous.
By early December, when the Tonquin stopped for fresh water in the Falkland Islands, the passengers had begun speaking only French in the presence of the by now hated Captain Thorn, because they knew he did not speak French and it drove him crazy. He paid them back by acting the even more petty tyrant. When five of his passengers went sightseeing and missed his deadline to return, Thorn weighed anchor and set sail, leaving them desperately rowing for three hours to catch up. He would have abandoned them to their fate, had not the wind fortuitously shifted and allowed the exhausted Canadians to collapse, vomiting, back on board. Everybody now had a thorn in their side; Captain Thorn
On Christmas day this unhappy ship rounded Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. And on the 12th of February 1811, after sailing across the Pacific Ocean, with stops in India and China to confirm business arrangements, the Tonquin anchored off Hawaii, for pork and water and to pick up a few additional workers. Thorn had by now convinced himself there was going to be an armed rebellion against him at any moment. His opportunity for dealing with this perceived threat arrived on 22 March 1811, when the Tonquin stood off the mouth of the Columbia River, at a cape with attractive title of Desperation Bay.
Captain Torn ordered his first mate, Ebenezer Fox, to take four of the Canadians and find a route over the treacherous sand bar at the river’s mouth. (Even today, the U.S. Coast Guard station at Desperation Bay responds to 400 calls for help every year.) Fox begged to be allowed to replace the Frenchmen. “I am to be sent off, without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.” Captain Thorn bellowed, “Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston. I command here! Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!” At about 1:00 p.m. Mr. Fox and the Canadians did just that, and were never seen again.
The next day Captain Thorn dispatched another seaman and three unhappy Hawaiians to find a passage. They also disappeared into the surf. Only now, with the ranks of his opponents thinned, did the captain dispatch able seamen. With difficulty they found an opening in the bar, and led the ship to the safety of the bay. The survivors were overjoyed to be on dry land and away from the insane Jonathan Thorn. Wrote one of the party, “The loss of eight of us within two days was deeply felt.” They immediately began building a fort, which they christened with the name of the man who signed their pay checks (and who had hired Captain Thorn!); Fort Astor.
Captain Thorn did not wait for the construction to be completed. Now that he had put the worst of the troublemakers ashore, and before the supplies had been completely unloaded, he sailed north, intending on returning in few weeks. Mr. McKay, ordered to accompany the madman north, handed over his journals and bade his friends goodbye. “If you ever see us again it will be a miracle”.
There was no miracle. Off Vancouver Island Captain Thorn applied his powers of diplomacy to a local tribe, who in response butchered the entire crew (including Thorn, thank God). Somehow fire reached the ship’s magazine, and the resultant explosion killed most of the avenging natives as well. Thus ended the naval and diplomatic career of Lt. Jonathan Thorn, dispensing death to everything and everyone he touched. He also left 16 survivors back at Fort Astor, stranded on the lonely west coast of North America, with barley half the supplies they needed and with no way of communicating their plight to anyone who cared to listen.
Meanwhile, as you may remember, Wilson Hunt was still leading a party of 65 French Canadian trappers out of Missouri. And after thinking the thing over carefully, Mr. Hunt decided not to follow the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. With the arrival of spring, in April 1811, he bought horses from the local Indians and mounted up his French Canadian trappers, each of whom had been hired because of their skills in handling a canoe.
By September of 1811, these miserable dudes had got as far as the North Fork of the Snake River (also called Henry’s Fork), in present day Idaho. Here Mr. Hunt faced an open rebellion from his French Canadians, who found their thighs badly chaffing. So they gave their horses as gifts to the local Indians, and the trappers set about constructing birch bark canoes. This proved to be a bad idea, as just two days after launching their tiny armada, two men drowned and two canoes were overturned (dumping all their food and supplies) as the river alternated between cascades, rapids and rock strewn shallows. Progress was so slow the party cleaned out every edible creature within reach of the river. In desperation, the starving Canadians split up into four groups. One turned back for civilisation, stumbling upon the broad South Pass through the Rockies along the way, while the other three groups headed further down “The accursed mad river.”
As they descended the Snake River they entered a narrow canyon. Quickly they were trapped in a quarter mile wide abyss, between 700 foot high walls of solid basalt. There was nothing to eat here beyond the fish in the river. As Richard Neuberger would write, “It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin foot gear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.”
The survivors finally exited this purgatory by climbing out of the canyon. Again under Mr. Hunt’s command, they scattered in search of food. Luckily they were stumbled upon by compassionate Indians, who fed and clothed the men before passing them on, tribe after tribe, until they were welcomed, each sad ragged party after the other, by the survivors of Astor’s ocean going disaster. Of the 64 who had set out from St. Louis in the fall of 1810, barely 45 staggered into Fort Astor, the last arriving in February of 1812…just in time for the war of 1812, between the United States and Great Britain.
Captain William Black, of HMS Raccoon, was startled at what he saw. “Is this the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world? Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!” But he did not have to. The Astorians, as they referred to themselves, surrendered to reality, secure in the knowledge that whatever nation’s flag was flying over the fort it remained the private property of an English citizen who had hired mostly French Canadians to do his dirty work. The war was, at worst, an inconvenience.
When the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814, a special clause was written, which specifically transferred the captured Fort Astoria from Britain back to the United States, where Mr. Astor had now taken up residence. Average men might occasionally die for a flag, but for rich elitists, money always trumps patriotism.
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