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At a time when the edge of American settlement barely reached beyond the Appalachian Mountains, two visionaries, President Thomas Jefferson and millionaire John Jacob Astor, foresaw that one day the Pacific would dominate world trade as much as the Atlantic did in their day. Just two years after the Lewis and Clark expedition concluded in 1806, Jefferson and Astor turned their sights westward once again. Thus began one of history's dramatic but largely forgotten turning points in the conquest of the North American continent.
Astoria is the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific coast. Astor set out to establish a global trade network based at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Oregon, while Jefferson envisioned a separate democracy on the western coast that would spread eastward to meet the young United States.
Astor backed this ambitious enterprise with the vast fortune he'd made in the fur trade and in New York real estate since arriving in the United States as a near-penniless immigrant soon after the Revolutionary War. He dispatched two groups of men west: One by sea around the southern tip of South America and one by land over the Rockies.
Unfolding from 1810 to 1813, Astoria is a tale of high adventure and incredible hardship, drawing extensively on firsthand accounts of those who made the journey. Though the colony itself would be short-lived, its founders opened provincial American eyes to the remarkable potential of the western coast, discovered the route that became the Oregon Trail, and permanently altered the nation's landscape and global standing.
With scant knowledge of where they are headed or how the world will change while they are en route, two bands of intrepid men head for the Pacific Northwest to assert their dominion over the land and, more importantly, the fur trade.
Cultural differences between the partners (who have the most to gain financially), voyageurs (French Canadians who are expert boatmen), trappers and the Native Americans lead to ghastly mistakes with deadly consequences. The arrogance of the European mindset is difficult to overcome and the primary barrier a successful expedition.
Although I have spent much of my life in the Pacific Northwest, this is a story I had never heard. Perhaps that is because their motives were completely financial - no superficial talk about Manifest Destiny or God's will to give a patina of morality. The men were brave and often heroic but they were also stupid, indecisive and foolish. They were so far from home that the only choice was to go on, whatever lay ahead.
Running two stories along parallel paths can sometimes be difficult to follow, but this book does a good job with both the over-land and sea expeditions. At the very beginning of the book, there is a chapter which actually takes place at almost the close of the story. It comes across as a bit of a gimmick to me - and this story does not need any tricks to keep your interest. The rescue ship in that first chapter is actually one of the least engaging parts of the story.
Other than that one, admittedly minor, complaint, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and learned a great deal. The reader was good, no distracting tics to bother me. The pace is appropriate to the material.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
Each chapter of this superbly crafted book contains multiple *moments in history,* events that intersected with the political strategy and shaped this country's development. It is also a character study of ambition, courage, greed, inexperience and bad decisions, all set on the grand stage of the beautiful and treacherous, still uncharted, American Northwest. On the heels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (just 2 years prior) one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, John Jacob Astor, schemed to corner the hungry global fur market by establishing a trading post on the west coast of the continent, thereby harvesting the untapped resources of the Pacific Northwest. *[from his NY base, Astor was already trading heavily with a demanding China and Europe. It was an extremely lucrative business for Astor. His company was trading *trinkets and beads* to several Indian tribes for pallets of furs worth thousands of dollars -- at a "2,500% profit."]
Encouraged by Jefferson, who dreamed of claiming the country after Lewis & Clark's report, and expanding America from coast to coast, Astor financed 2 expeditions: by sea, the 94 ft. 290 ton, copper-hulled Merchant ship, the Tonquin, captained by a seasoned but arrogant, US Navy lieutenant, Jonathan Thorn; and a land expedition led by fur-trader businessman, Wilson Hunt Price. Though inexperienced, and it can now be added ignorant, Hunt planned to use information gathered from the Lewis & Clark Expedition to lead his group west to the mouth of the Columbia River. 340 days later, the two groups would meet at their destination...but, both journeys had been ill-fated. 61 men had perished (also an infant child born on the trek) or had suffered physical and psychological traumas, the Tonquin lay at the bottom of the Clayoquot Sound, and eventually, the weary survivors sold out to the Canadian North West Fur Company for pennies on Astor's dollars.
Stark has done an outstanding job researching journals, letters, articles, interviewing descendants of the explorers, and studying the different cultures of the Native American tribes that inhabited the landscape of the American Northwest -- a culture that paid the ultimate price of Manifest Destiny. Stark, wonderfully describing the topography along the journey, leads his own expedition in a sense: the passages detailing Hell's Canyon and the "Mad River" (The Snake River) are both beautiful and intense; the vistas of buffalo covered prairie's out of the Dakota's are majestic, and so on. The voyage of the Tonquin is just as eloquently written. Struggling to navigate through the system of bars and shoals at the mouth of the Columbia River, battling the waves, wind, and currents, Stark gives readers a white-knuckle passage through what is known as the *Graveyard of the Pacific.* Often I was left behind, picturing the scenes, in awe of the fury or the serene beauty -- the land seems so raw from what I have experienced... I've safely rafted down the Snake River, looked out across the Badlands, ridden a tugboat through the bucking swells of the Columbia Bar. To look back through history from our hard-won state of comfort is incredible.
The characters are nothing less than fascinating from the robust and colorful French Voyageurs to the quiet, brave interpreter, Maria Dorian [gave birth during the trek]. It would be overwhelming to highlight every stunning aspect of this book, or encapsulate such a huge and important adventure into paragraphs. The epilogue is the eye of history looking back over the expedition and wrapping it all up nicely for a great conclusion. This is a read I recommend highly to anyone, and an absolute *don't miss* for history fans. I would also recommend reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, if you haven't read about Lewis and Clark.
27 of 30 people found this review helpful
On the eve of the War of 1812, John Jacob Astor assembled French and Scots Canadian fur traders with American explorers and seamen for two advance parties for a grand plan: obtain fabulous wealth from the Sea Otter fur trade with China, and found the first American settlement on the Northwest Pacific Coast. The seagoing party is led by the aptly named stickler for discipline, Captain Thorn. The overland party, just two years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, is led by a genial, non-confrontational New Jersey man with limited wilderness experience. While the reader can surmise from these facts the final result from the clash of native and European cultures and governments, this remains an utterly fascinating book about a historical failure that later triumphs due to the discovery of the overland path back East that was to become the Oregon Trail. Like the vast majority of Americans, I had not heard of the lead ship, the Tonquin, and knew the Astoria only as a New York hotel. The only Astor I had heard of was the one who went down with the Titanic (actually a direct descendant.) I was fascinated to learn about the sometimes exotic and often violent events during early exploration and settlement of the Columbia River Mouth: the unfortunate slap that led to a massacre and explosion; native Hawaiians in the dark, damp Oregon woods, and a brave Native American woman, Marie Dorian, who survived greater challenges than the famous Sacajawea of Lewis and Clark expedition fame. Thoroughly researched and engagingly told, this is a wonderful book that reads like a thriller. Highly recommend.
9 of 10 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about Astoria?
I like history books that are told from a narrative perspective. The riveting story of how the richest man in America and one of our most famous presidents teamed to explore and colonize the Northwest was fascinating. Like America itself the story is big and contains the best and the worst of the American experience.
What other book might you compare Astoria to and why?
Gold Rush, another Audible title that works well in the same way. Great narrative, terrific historical perspective and solid narration. There is no ideological bent to these stories, the facts are conveyed and conveyed in an entertaining and thought provoking manner.
What does Michael Kramer bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
He did a book job. He was a bit understated, but that did not bother me in the least.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Probably not, but that does not diminish the power of the story or my respect for the people who actually lived it.
Any additional comments?
An Audible subscription is a great way to fill in science and history information that you may not have paid attention to in school, or needed for your career. I prefer these types of books Great Courses books. This is not a lecture but a narrative that fills in the gaps you may have had about the early 1800's and how America fought for legitimacy. Good stuff, highly recommend.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
They did everything right. The plan was superb, the outcome would change everything but a forty foot waterfall, a copper clad ship with an arrogant sea captain, and the British Royal Navy would bring it down or were the factors the personnel tasked to do the job? A master story teller retells a story mostly forgotten and needed to be retold.
7 of 8 people found this review helpful
I loved everything about this book, super interesting, well written, and very well married. I'll definitely find something else written by this author
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
Absolutely! This story is very historical and exciting, and includes elements of international politics, leadership and economics. This story should certainly be taught in history classes throughout the country.
What did you like best about this story?
The extremity of the circumstances surrounding the founding of this colony, and the amount of impact every seemingly small decision had on the final outcome.
Which character – as performed by Michael Kramer – was your favorite?
As this is a historical account, characters weren't really performed.
Any additional comments?
This is a wonderful story, and it is a shame that more people don't know about it. The fact that the people involved went through such extreme circumstances and most of them survived speaks to the survivability of humans. The different styles of leadership can be seen to directly affect the outcome, and much can be learned when comparing Astor's leadership with the ship captain and leader of the overland party, and even more when comparing those things to other instances such as Shackleton or others.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
As a lover of Western American history, this novel is enthralling. Living in the Snake River plain region of Idaho, I understand the terrain and difficult conditions these explorers are experiencing. The entire story so far does not disappoint and anyone interested in the early periods of Western American history will love it.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Having briefly visited the small city of Astoria a few years ago and being inspired by majestic views and the wide Columbia river, this book caught my interest and I am so glad it did. The author includes a great blend of research ed history with context to give meaning to a modern reader
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Incredibly well researched and full of suspense, a great combination for a historic tale. I live in Oregon and I still think about Astoria nearly every day, a year after finishing the book.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful