Biographical Notes
John Jacob Astor

The Astor family had its origins in the Lake Como area of northern Italy. Family tradition holds that a distant ancestor was a Spanish knight who was killed in Jerusalem during the Fourth Crusade. Dislodged by religious conflict in the seventeenth century, Astor's Protestant ancestors fled to Heidelberg. At the end of that century, they were forced to flee again when Louis XIV's troops razed the town. This time they settled in Zurich, Switzerland. In the eighteenth century the family moved first to Nussloch in Baden and then to Walldorf near Heidelberg. On July 17, 1763, Johaan Jakob Astor was born, the son of Felix and Susannah Astor. Johaan's father was the town butcher. He married three times and was widowed twice. Each of his wives had children. The various siblings did not get along well and none of the children were particularly close to their father. Johaan benefited from good schooling in Walldorf, but had no desire to follow in his father's footsteps as the town butcher.

In about 1774, Johaan's older brother, George, moved to London and went to work making musical instruments. In 1775, another older brother, Heinrich, joined the army in Frankfurt and sailed to North America as part of the Hessian mercenary force that had been rented out to the British. Heinrich changed his name to Henry, deserted the army, and established himself as a butcher in New York during the revolution. Back in Walldorf, Johaan was confirmed in the Lutheran Church and much to his dislike, assisted his father in the family butcher shop. When he reached his teens he was finally able to leave. He worked his way to London where he joined his brother George in his musical instrument shop. He anglicized his name to John Jacob and, in 1778, he and his brother established their own musical instrument shop in a fashionable part of the city.

John remained in London until 1783 when he sailed to Baltimore with a consignment of musical instruments. Arriving in March 1784 he sold a few flutes and obtained enough money to travel to New York to visit his brother Henry. He boarded with a baker and his first employment was selling bakery goods on the street. A bit later he went to work for a fur dealer named Robert Browne (known as "Quaker" Browne), but also continued to sell musical instruments importedfrom his brother's shop in London. He saved his money and purchased fur pelts wherever he could. In 1885 he took his first shipment of furs to London and sold them for a handsome profit. While in London, he broadened his musical import business to include pianos. On September 19, 1785, he married Sarah Todd, a descendent of the influential New York Dutch Brevoort family. Sarah quickly became an able assistant in John's business dealings.

Astor's first fur-buying expedition took place at the end of 1785 when he traveled alone into northern New York to trade with trappers and Indians. The pelts that he acquired were then shipped to London where they were sold for a handsome profit. In succeeding years he expanded his business and became well known in the New York area. By 1788 he was trading all the way to Montreal, Canada. Befriended by Alexander Henry of the Northwest Company, Astor was able to trade profitably even though most of the Montreal merchants were suspicious of him as a foreigner. That same year he accompanied Northwest voyagers to Fort William on Lake Superior and gained an understanding not only of the vast scale of the fur trade, but also of the enormous profit that was being made by the Northwest and the Hudson's Bay Companies.

Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1788 and they named her Magdalene. Although most of Astor's profits were plowed back into the business, they still had sufficient funds to purchase a house on Little Dock Street, now called Water Street. Their fur business prospered and a son (John Jacob II) was born to the couple in 1789. Astor established a fur depot in Schenectady on the Mohawk River and sold his pelts to Thomas Backhouse and Company in London. Thomas's brother, William, lived in New York and took a liking to Astor. Backhouse advised him and assited him with loans as he established himself in New York. Astor joined the Freemasons and with the support of his in-laws became a member of the prestigious Holland 8 Lodge. The Governor of New York and other contemporary luminaries were among its members. Again with the help of his wife's family connections, he circulated in New York's most prestigious social circles.