We know about the Lewis and Clark expedition. We know about Sacagawea. We know about John Jacob Astor, the fur and real estate tycoon who in 1848 was the richest man in the United States.
Now, with “Astoria,” Peter Stark tells the story of Astor’s attempt to build upon the expedition’s discovery of where the Columbia River spills into the Pacific Ocean. With a new American colony on the West Coast, Astor hoped to set up a global trade network with China, while his supporter Thomas Jefferson believed the outpost would bolster the young United States.
Such was the weight of wealth, ambition and history that fell upon Astor’s two advance parties, sent out with little more than a compass pointing west. The seagoing party endured a harrowing experience, led by a captain whose insecurities led many to their deaths.
The overland trek was no less arduous, given the bushwhacking nature of that party’s slow progress and, again, a leader whose style was ill-suited to the task. Astoria was built, barely, and ultimately abandoned. But the story of its founders is harshly inspiring, a deeply researched look into the irresistible drive to explore the unknown and the capacity of people to survive, not only the elements, but one another.