Jefferson and John Astor wanted to found a Pacific Empire. Thomas Hart Benton and Jessie Benton were close to the Astor family.
WASHINGTON — In the 19th Century, the giants of the U.S. Senate had a special affinity for constituent service: They drew salaries from powerful businessmen while serving on Capitol Hill.
Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri was paid by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co.; Henry Clay of Kentucky worked for James De Wolfe, a slave trader, and the great orator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was on the payroll of the Bank of the United States. Webster even complained to the bank managers that “my retainer has not been renewed, or refreshed as usual.”
By today’s definition of morality, those payments would be considered bribery, and the senators who accepted them would be disgraced, if not indicted and convicted. Political ethics have changed remarkably since the days of Benton, Clay and Webster.
Astoria, or Fort Astoria, was the United States’ first settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Located in present-day Oregon, along the Columbia River, the area was first visited in 1805 by President Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery when they wintered in nearby Fort Clatsop. The idea to found a permanent settlement near the mouth of the Columbia was devised by the wealthy New Yorker John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). Born on July 17, 1763 in Waldorf, Germany, Astor emigrated to the United States in 1783, and within a decade was America’s leading fur trader. He hoped to expand his lucrative business into the Pacific Northwest, an area dominated by British Canadian fur traders at the time. Astor pursued the idea with President Jefferson in a series of letters and a meeting in 1808.1 Plans were laid for the Astoria expedition after Jefferson guaranteed Astor “every reasonable patronage and facility in the power of the executive.”2 The Astorians set out for Oregon in 1809 in two groups: one travelling by land, following Lewis and Clark’s route, and one by sea. In 1811, the seafaring party landed along the Columbia and began to build their settlement; in doing so they had realized Jefferson’s dream of transcontinental American settlement.
Over the next few years the Astorians went about, in Jefferson’s words, “planting the germ of an American population on the shores of the pacific.”3 However, with American-British relations strained, and war on the horizon, Astor began to fear for the survival of his settlement. He wrote to Jefferson, now retired and living at Monticello, in hopes of persuading him to write or meet with leaders in Washington in support of military protection. Jefferson again complimented the aims of Astor, going so far as to compare him with “Columbus and Raleigh;”4 however, he declined to take any action in support of Astoria, stating “from medaling however with these subjects it is my duty as well as my inclination to abstain.”5 After President Madison declared war on Britain, Astor again wrote Jefferson on the matter but received a similar answer.6 However, by this point the Astorians, unbeknownst to those back east, had under the threat of Royal Navy attack sold out to the British-Canadian-owned North West Fur Company at a price which Astor considered to be far below market value.7 Although Astor would make several moves to reclaim the area for his company, this effectively ended his exploits in the Pacific Northwest.8 In the following years, Astor focused the attention of the American Fur Company on the Great Lakes region, and met with great success. By the time of his death in March of 1848, he was America’s wealthiest man.
– Kevin Hivick, Monticello Research Report, February 2011
- Irving, Washington. Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836. The first edition of Irving’s account of Astoria’s founding, available online.
- Ronda, James P. Astoria & Empire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1849. A first-person account of the Astorians’ sea voyage and subsequent settlement at Astoria. Available online from Google Books.
- Search for more sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal on Astoria and John Jacob Astor