Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/John Jacob Astor

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ASTOR, John Jacob, an enterprising American merchant, founder of the Astor Library at New York, was born at the village of Walldorf near Heidelberg, on the 17th July 1763. His father was a peasant, and his early years were spent in the common labours of the farm. At sixteen he joined an elder brother, a musical instrument maker, in London, and at twenty sailed for the United States. On the voyage he became acquainted with a fur-trader, by whose advice he devoted himself to the same business. By his energy, industry, and sound judgment he gradually enlarged his schemes, did business in all the fur markets of the world, and amassed an enormous fortune,—the largest up to that time made by any American. He devoted many years to carrying out a project for organising the fur trade from the Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, and thence by way of the Sandwich Islands to China and India. In 1811 he founded at the mouth of the Columbia River a settlement, named after him Astoria, which was intended to serve as the central depot; but in the following year the settlement was taken and occupied by the English. The incidents of this undertaking are the theme of Washington Irving's Astoria. A series of disasters frustrated the gigantic scheme. Astor made vast additions to his wealth by investments in land in New York city. He made many charitable bequests by his will, and among them a gift of $50,000 to the poor of his native village in Germany. But the deed by which he will be chiefly remembered was the foundation and endowment by his will of the Astor Library at New York, for which he bequeathed the sum of $400,000. The building, erected in Lafayette Place (1850-53), is in the Byzantine style of architecture. Washington Irving was appointed first president, and the formation and arrangement of the library was entrusted to Mr J. G. Cogswell. The building has since been enlarged at the cost of the eldest son of the founder. Mr Astor spent the last twenty five years of his life in retirement, and died at New York, March 29, 1848.