Historians of the American West have long studied the path-breaking establishment of Astoria as a fur-trading post on the Columbia River in 1811 and its short history as a pawn in international rivalries. I recently re-read this book by James P. Ronda that presents the first full-length study of Astoria to appear since Washington Irving’s Astoria in 1836. The result is a fine work that is more significant than just a story of adventure in the Pacific Northwest or just one more account of a single aspect of the fur trade. It moves with a sweep and a dimension that places the little post on the banks of the Columbia River in the vortex of world events, a pawn in games of international rivalry and chance.
Ronda describes carefully the efforts of John Jacob Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company and several other business enterprises, to establish Astoria as the capital of his far western trading empire during the first decade of the nineteenth century. That effort moved from New York to Washington to St. Petersburg to Montreal to Canton as he manipulated international politics and appealed to personal desires. Astor, motivated by a quest for wealth but fortified by a sense of national prominence, appealed to the expansionist-minded politicians of the United States to gain support for Astoria’s creation.
Astor was finally successful and in 1811 the site was settled by representatives of the Pacific Fur Company traveling in two contingents, one overland and the other by sea. For the next three years Astor and his lieutenants battled bureaucracy in several nations, international ambitions on the part of several countries, rival fur trading companies, and the economics of the business to keep Astoria in operation. They failed, and it succumbed during the War of 1812 only to become one of the British North West Company’s posts for the next twenty years.
But Astoria & Empire is more than a recitation of the life and death of the American settlement. Although it is little more than a footnote in most history texts, if Ronda had limited his book to the Astoria’s history irrespective of other events that affected it I would have questioned the necessity of its publication. Instead, Ronda provides an excellent study in the history of international relations at several levels of governments and between private citizens.
Astoria presents, essentially, a case study in business and politics in a transnational setting. Ronda’s work, moreover, is a social history. He uses some untapped historical materials to reconstruct life on the trips to and from Astoria as well as activities at the post. In so doing, he presents a very useful portrait of activities in an early fur trading establishment. He describes something of the interrelationships of cultures and allegiances between the Americans, the Indians, the French and British Canadians, the Russians, and the Hawaiians. This social portrait is especially welcome also as a glimpse of the diversity present on the early fur trading frontier.
Astoria & Empire is one of several refreshing books to appear on the development of the American West. It is a commendable work, and because of the skill of its author its 344 pages of narrative make interesting reading. One word of caution, however, this is not just western or frontier history, it is sophisticated analysis of several historical trends focused through the lens of Astoria; present in it also is social history and business history and diplomatic history and probably some other types of history yet unnamed. Those seeking staid fur trade literature with the emphasis on minutiae will be disappointed. Those readers pondering broader vistas, however, will be rewarded by considering Ronda’s work.