Summary and book reviews of Astoria by Peter Stark

Astoria

John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

By Peter Stark

Astoria
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2014,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

In the tradition of The Lost City of Z and Skeleton in the Zahara, Astoria is the thrilling, true-adventure tale of the 1810 Astor Expedition, an epic, now forgotten, three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast. Peter Stark offers a harrowing saga in which a band of explorers battled nature, starvation, and madness to establish the first American settlement in the Pacific Northwest and opened up what would become the Oregon trail, permanently altering the nation's landscape and its global standing.

Six years after Lewis and Clark's began their journey to the Pacific Northwest, two of the Eastern establishment's leading figures, John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson, turned their sights to founding a colony akin to Jamestown on the West Coast and transforming the nation into a Pacific trading power. Author and correspondent for Outside magazine Peter Stark recreates this pivotal moment in American history for the first time for modern readers, drawing on original source material to tell the amazing true story of the Astor Expedition.

Unfolding over the course of three years, from 1810 to 1813, Astoria is a tale of high adventure and incredible hardship in the wilderness and at sea. Of the more than one hundred-forty members of the two advance parties that reached the West Coast - one crossing the Rockies, the other rounding Cape Horn - nearly half perished by violence. Others went mad. Within one year, the expedition successfully established Fort Astoria, a trading post on the Columbia River. Though the colony would be short-lived, it opened provincial American eyes to the potential of the Western coast and its founders helped blaze the Oregon Trail.

Excerpt
ASTORIA

The bickering aboard the Tonquin started that first night out of New York Harbor, on September 8, 1810. Captain Thorn, following his naval discipline, ordered all lights out at 8:00 P.M. His salt- hardened crew diligently obeyed. But the four clannish, woodsy, Scottish fur traders on board as passengers hadn't finished their socializing on deck, chatting and smoking their pipes as if sitting around a campfire. Nor had the dozen sinewy, French- Canadian voyageurs. Nor the eight literate young men from Canada who had signed on as clerks with Mr. Astor, some of them scribbling away in their journals.

The argumentative Scottish fur traders flatly refused Captain Thorn's order for bedtime. Mr. Astor had made them partners in the great scheme, they retorted. They held a financial interest. That meant, as shareholders, they owned part of the Tonquin. How could Captain Thorn tell them what to do aboard their own ship?

Another question arose: Who would sleep ...

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Reviews

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Many readers avoid non-fiction because they feel it's too dry, too devoid of action; until recently I was one of them and so I do understand this reaction. I would wager that Astoria will go a long way toward changing many minds about the genre. The account reads like the best of action-adventure novels. Peter Stark does readers a very large service in reminding us about this extraordinary and important piece of North American history. I can't recommend Astoria highly enough for anyone interested in the colonization of the American West.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
New York Times Book Review

Stark’s delightful narrative is proof that even though Astor didn’t leave the legacy he intended, his grand failure certainly deserves its own place in history.

The Wall Street Journal

In Astoria, Peter Stark recounts the colony’s history as a fast-paced, enjoyable adventure tale.

The Washington Post

In his new book, Astoria ... Stark moves skillfully back and forth from one segment of the splintered expedition to another. He also raises a tantalizing question about the enterprise as a whole.

Portland Oregonian

Stark tells their grim story well . . . ‘Astoria’ is a well-written . . . account of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to found a commercial empire in the Pacific Northwest. It illuminates the cultural limits of the American approach to frontier expansion.

The Seattle Times

Peter Stark’s Astoria is a vivid recreation of an era when the Pacific Northwest was a vast unexploited wilderness, with Astoria as its main American colony. . . . Stark is particularly strong in describing the wilderness and its effects on human psychology.

Publishers Weekly

A page-turning tale of ambition, greed, politics, survival, and loss.

Booklist

A breathtaking account of an expedition that changed the geography of a young nation and its place in global commerce and politics.

Chicago Tribune

[Descriptive] passages . . . make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure and help the reader get into a scene and understand the context or see relationships between participants and between then and now.

Library Journal

Stark vividly writes of fur trader John Jacob Astor’s capitalist quest … [a] fascinating account… that never loses its focus.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death. [Stark] recovers a remarkable piece of history: the story of America's first colony on the continent's West coast.

Author Blurb Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Bunker Hill, and In the Heart of the Sea
Peter Stark's Astoria picks up where the Lewis and Clark Expedition leaves off, providing a fascinating and sometimes terrifying window into the brutal and acquisitive essence of not only America but of the human condition. It's also a great and ... an ennobling tale of survival. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Laurence Gonzalez, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of
Peter Stark weaves a spellbinding tale from this lost chapter of American history. Astoria gave me the sense all readers long for: that nothing exists but the riveting narrative unfolding in your head.

Author Blurb Stephenie Ambrose-Tubbs, author of The Lewis and Clark Companion
A splendid account of the man and men who had the audacity, passion, and courage to dream of an American Empire. Peter Stark's Astoria is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the power of leadership in its purest form.

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The Columbia River

The mouth of the Columbia River – where it meets the Pacific Ocean at the state border between Oregon and Washington – was John Jacob Astor's intended location for a trading center.

The path of the Columbia River The Columbia River flows for 1,243 miles from its source at Columbia Lake, British Colombia through Washington and Oregon. It is the largest river flowing from North America into the Pacific. It is the fourth largest river by volume in North America (behind the Mississippi, St. Lawrence and MacKenzie rivers) with a watershed that drains an area the size of France (259,000 square miles) from seven states and British Columbia. The Columbia's largest tributary is the Snake River, which travels over a thousand miles from its source in Yellowstone...

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