Excerpt from Astoria by Peter Stark, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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

by Peter Stark

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2014, 384 pages
    Feb 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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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 where on the overcrowded vessel jammed with supplies and personnel to start Mr. Astor's empire on the Pacific? Captain Thorn had assigned some of the clerks-in-training to sleep before the mast with the common crew. The Scottish partners took this as an insult and confronted Captain Thorn to move the clerks aft to the main cabin.

"He was a strict disciplinarian," wrote one of the clerks, Gabriel Franchère, who kept a journal, "of a quick and passionate temper, accustomed to exact obedience, considering nothing but duty, and giving himself no trouble about the murmurs of his crew, taking counsel of nobody, and following Mr. Astor's instructions to the letter. Such was the man who had been selected to command our ship."

McDougall, the small, proud Scottish partner, was incensed. It was McKay, however, with years of experience in the Canadian fur trade, who stepped forward as the partners' de facto spokesman.

"We will defend ourselves rather than suffer such treatment."

Captain Thorn, just then turning to leave, suddenly spun around on his heel to face McKay.

"I will blow out the brains of the first man who dares disobey my orders aboard my own ship."

"In the midst of this scene," wrote another clerk, Alexander Ross, "Mr. David Stuart, a good old soul, stept up, and by his gentle and timely interference put an end to the threatening altercation.

"This was the first specimen we had of the captain's disposition," Ross continued, "and it laid the foundation of a rankling hatred between the partners and himself."

And so went the great venture's first hours at sea.

* * *

This cultural clash aboard the Tonquin had its origins in the earliest European settlement of North America. The ship in many ways was a microcosm of the continent itself at that moment in 1810— national boundaries still undefined, and different peoples, even Northern European ones, largely unblended in what would eventually become known as the melting pot.

The earliest French colonists in North America were aristocratic adventurers and entrepreneurs who established a settlement in today's Nova Scotia shortly before Sir Walter Raleigh's British colonists founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. The French soon discovered that their wealth was not in agriculture, but in the rich harvests of furs— especially beaver— from the millions of square miles of the continent's vast interior. These fetched high prices in Europe, where the aristocracy valued furs and beaver felt hats as high- fashion items.

Culturally, the French held an advantage in the fur trade because they, unlike the English, had few qualms about intermarrying with Native Americans and acculturating to an Indian way of life, learning to hunt and fish like the native peoples, trap the abundant beaver, travel hundreds of miles by birchbark canoe.

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Excerpted from Astoria by Peter Stark. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Stark. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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