Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire (Peter Stark)

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
Peter Stark
Nonfiction, History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Two sister nations of self-rule and democracy, one on the East Coast and one on the West - this was a vision of President Thomas Jefferson after the return of his explorers Lewis and Clark from their historic expedition. Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor, who rose from lowly immigrant selling cakes on the streets of New York City to prominent businessman, had his own dreams for a continent-spanning empire of fur posts, capitalizing on the enormous profits to be had in a Chinese market hungry for pelts (and a fledgling America hungry for Chinese trade goods). While Jefferson, tied to the needs of the young nation, couldn't commit the money or manpower to this dream, Astor could... and did. In 1810, he sent two parties west, one by land and one by sea, to rendezvous at the mouth of the newly-reported Columbia River, there to lay the cornerstone of this grand new vision.
Astor went into the enterprise with his usual care and attention to detail. He selected the best men he knew. He sent clear orders. He kept his eye on rivals, such as the British-owned North West Company, and strove to outmaneuver them. But he forgot to account for the sheer size of the challenge: unexplored wilderness, culture clashes with natives, international friction, personality conflicts, and how his hand-chosen emissaries would react to the stresses of carving an empire out of the vast, wild Pacific Northwest coast.

REVIEW: The now-nearly-forgotten story of Astoria - today mostly a city along the Columbia River that one drives through on the interstate between Seattle and Portland - represents one of those moments in history where, with a little different timing and luck, our current world might be vastly different. In the early 1800's, the West - even as far as the Rockies, let alone the Pacific Coast - was barely even an abstraction to what was then America, and the concept of "manifest destiny" that would eventually drive countless citizens across the continent was almost unimaginable. Communication and travel was slow and often unreliable, moreso the further one went into the wilds. To have the sort of vision (or raw, material greed) to even conceive of a cross-continental venture such as the proposed Astoria was as mind-boggling to the average citizen then as current visions of interplanetary colonization are today. In some ways, both Jefferson and Astor were ahead of their times in even considering it... and both their visions were ultimately doomed by that very fact, among other problems. Without reliable communications with the people actually doing the work to found his fur empire, Astor was unable to apply his own business acumen to the many unforeseen problems that arose, each problem chipping away at chances of success. Astor also may have been a decent judge of individual men, but failed to understand how his people would work (or, as was often the case, fail to work) together, particularly under stress. At one point, Captain Thorne of the Tonquin, carrying the Seagoing party of future Astorians, nearly abandoned several of Astor's men to die on an island over personality conflicts, while the Overland party leader's lack of experience led to costly, even deadly delays and other debacles.
Stark draws on historical documents and narratives to present as much of the whole story as can be told. It's a story full of adventure and cultural friction, victories and defeats, near-death and amazing breakthroughs, and the very spirit of a young, bold country trying itself against the wider world. I should've been riveted to my seat. Unfortunately, Stark tends to jump around, sometimes repeating himself (almost verbatim), and most of the players became murky name soup as I struggled to remember who was where and doing what when I was suddenly yanked from one place and time to another. I also was a little miffed by how much of the book was "extra matter": the Epilogue ends at 71% of the way through the book, the rest being footnotes and "also by the same author" material. On Kindle, the maps were difficult to read, as well. (If there's a strong Eurocentric lean to how this tale was told, relegating natives to side roles on what was, after all, their land originally, well, it is a tale driven more by "white man" greed, arrogance and overreaching than the impact on locals.)
Ultimately, I was intrigued (once again) to learn another part of history that I'd never learned - or learned and utterly forgot about - in school, even if the presentation wasn't as clear or engaging as it might have been.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sword and the Cross (Fergus Fleming) - My Review
Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

No comments:

Post a Comment