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to the north and northwest, where men exemplified the idea of patriarchal
ease and pride, and in lordly style controlled great interests in the Cana-
dian wilderness ; of the rise of the Hudson's Bay Co. chartered by King
Charles II., in 1670, and of the rivalry between the races, which confronted
one another in those shadowy and uncivilized regions. Then we pass on
to the year 1762, when the French Crown lost possession ot Canada, and
iheir trade fell wholly into British hands ; and we read the story of years
of dire trouble and distress, while the moody savage, loyal to the kindly
French, and mistrusting the English, waged bloody battle against the
newcomers, and taught them the need of organization for the prosecution
of their traffic and the safety of their lives. And so was formed that nota-
ble "North West Co.", which held, as we are told, a lordly sway over
the wintry lakes and boundless forests of the Canadas, almost equal to
that of the East India Co. over the voluptuous climes and magnificent
realms of Orient ; and subsequently with a view to satisfy the uncjueiich-
able thirst of the English, another company appears, bearing the name of
Mackinaw, and intending to work south, down the Mississippi River,

* 1762.

1 89 1.] ^Ir. J. J. As/or and his American Ancestry, jjy

and thus to monopolize the trade with the South and West and an-
cient Louisiana. On these comprehensive and flourishing schemes, the
United States Government, then in its infancy, but restless and impatient
with the sense of inborn power, looked with wary eyes and growing un-
easiness ; making, at intervals, abortive attempts to counteract the British,
to acquire a foothold in the territory, to attract the Indian tribes, and
to divert some, at least, of that branch of trade into national channels, but
casting about, uncertain, for the means of doing what soon must be done.

We have reached the point at which our personal record unites with the
current of public events. You know, of course, the place, whare from
its eminence, the ancient and ruinous castle of Heidelberg looks down
upon the Valley of the Neckar. Not far from that town, in what was
once the Grand Duchy of Baden, is the little village of Waldorf ; where,
on the 17th of July, 1763, a child was born who was destined to found
a house in the greatest City of the New World, and to make for himself
and a line of worthy descendants, a great and honored name. Sprung, not
of princely or noble race, but from the ranks of the working people,
he was one of those who control circumstance and make fortune bend
submissive to their will.

One morning in the Autumn of the year 1783, this youth, leaving his
quiet home, set his face toward the lands across the Western Ocean ; * in
the month of January following he landed at Baltimore, bringing with
him little or nothing but youth, and health, a stout heart, and an in-
tellect which, to use the expression of one who knew him intimately, would
have qualified him for the command of an army of 500,000 men. To
German thrift, and German industry and patience, and German honesty
and honour, the path of conquest lies open. He came to the country at
a time rich in opportunity, and his quick eye took in the need and the
promise of the hour. I'he Revolutionary War was ended, but the fron-
tier ports of Oswego, Niagara, and Detroit, still in possession of the Brit-
ish, opposed a barrier to the prosecution of commercial enterprises by the
American Government. On the final surrender of those ports in 1794-5,
the way was open for our youth, already qualified by personal e.xperience
and adventure, and by close study of the position of affairs, to proffer
counsel and aid to the President and Congress looking to the building up
of a national trade, independent of foreign agencies, and on a purely Ameri-
can basis. Your patience would be exhausted if I were to tell the whole
storv. It is not necessary to do so. 1 have referred to it simply as an
illustration of the intellectual power and the practical skill and ability of
the founder of the house ; nor shall I say more than this, that his plan,
one of the grandest and most comprehensive ever formed by the mind of
man, included the establishment of a chain of posts extending from the

* It is an interesting fact that an eUier brother of John Jacob Astor was in the
German Military Service in North America during the Revolutionary War ; probably
through him the attention of the younger man was first turned to America. The
Astor referred to was a privite in one of those contingents hired by King CJeorge III.
for service against his rebellious subjects. The recent publication of the Journal of
Captain Pauscli has changed our estimate of the Hessians, showing them to have been
not only thoroughly good soldiers, but also honest, sober. God-fearing men, of the
same stamp as the German troops who fought in the Franco-German War. It was
not their fault that they served against the Americans, but that of the petty autocrats
who sold them like droves of cattle. Astor remained in this country after the war,
and identified himself witJi its interests and fortunes, as did many others of his class.

Il8 Mr. J. J. As/or and his American Ances/ry. [J^lv,

Great Lakes to the Pacific Coast ; the erection of a town on that coast,
at the mouth of the Columbia River ; the acquisition of one of the group
of the Sandwich Islands as an intermediate station ; and the opening
of communication with all these points by the aid of a line of vessels,
thus connecting New York, the tropical Islands, the central station of
Astoria, the Russian possessions in the far north, and China and India
across the Pacific Ocean. To carry out this magnificent idea, the Amer-
ican Fur Company was founded by him in 1807, and the City of Asto-
ria in 181 1, and ships had already begun to wing their way across the seas,
when the plan came to naught, partly through treachery, and partly
through the breaking out of the War in 1812. The record remains, an
impeiishable and indisputable proof of the genius of him who conceived
the plan which, under more auspicious circumstances, might have been
carried to a complete success.

This man, JOHN JACOB ASTOR, was the founder of that distin-
guished house which bears his name.* It is unnecessary to say more about
him ; but thus much at least it seemed proper to say, in order 10 throw
light on the early annals of the family. That the qualities once con-
spicuously employed in national interests, were subsequently turned to
better account in a more restricted field, is too v^^ell known to need repeti-
tion. How he lived in style befitting his position as the wealthiest pri-
vate citizen of the United States, yet simply and becomingly ; how he
surrounded himself with literary men, and collected about him the treas-
ures of literature and art; how he founded the Librarv which forms one
of the treasured ornaments of our City, and how at last he passed away,
honored, respected, and admired, are facts with which you are familiar.
He died March 29, 1848, and his son, William B. Astor, born September
19, 1792, succeeded, as heir to the estate and head of the house.

Of that admirable man 1 shall have little to say. There are those in
this hall to-night, who well remember his mild and kindly face, his gra-
cious presence, and that inimitable air of high breeding and culture,
which, though it does not make, yet certainly does mark the gentleman.
The son did justice to the father's pride and hope. Mr. William B.
Astor stood deservedly among the first in this community. He conducted
the vast affairs with which he was entrusted with prudence and ability ;
and devoted much time to the preservation and increase of an estate, no
part of which was ever squandered in recklessness or misappropriated to
evil ends. Fitted by his education, first at Heidelberg and then at Got-
tingen, for the enjoyment and cultivation of literary and artistic instincts,
he gave attention to liberal and esthetic studies, and carried out his
father's plans in that direction. The elder Astor had already left by will
$400,000 to found the Library which bears his name. The son added,
during his life-time and by will $450,000 to that amount, completing the
original building in 1853, and adding another in 1859; which gifts he
supplemented by ^another of $100,000 in books. He married Margaret
Rebecca Armstrong, a lady of noteworthy lineage. Her family was of

* John Jacob Astor, horn July 17, 1763, in Waldorf, Duchy of Baden, married in
1785, Sarah Todd, daughter of Adam Todd and Margaret Dodge his wife. Mrs.
Sarah Astor died Marcli, 1S34, in the 73d year of her age. I'heir children were John
Jacob, jr., William Backhouse, and three daughters, who were afterwards the Count-
ess of Rumpff ; Mrs. Bristed, wife of the Rev. John Brisied ; and Mrs. Waller Lang-

1 89 1.] Mr. J. J. As/or and his American A?iceslry. \ iq

Scottish origin, as the name indicates, and of the number who, for polit-
ical reasons, found it necessary to fly from their own country during
the agitations and rebellions of the Eighteenth Century. The Arm-
strongs took refuge in Enniskillen, in the north of Ireland, whence John
Armstrong came to America. This man earned distinction in the war
with France in 1755-6 and was afterwards commissioned as brigadier-
general in the Continental Army. For his military services he
received from Pennsylvania, the State of his adoption, the first medal
ever struck by that State, together with other honours. His son,
a second John Armstrong, was also a soldier, and served during
the Campaign against Burgoyne which closed at Saratoga. General Arm-
strong was Secretary of War in President Madison's Cabinet, United
States Senator, and Minister to France. His sons, Henry B., John, and
Kosciusko Armstrong, were well known and conspicuous in their day ; the
last-named was a highly accomplished gentleman of literarv tastes.

His daughter, Margaret Rebecca Armstrong, married Mr. William B,
Astor, who spent much time in foreign travel. Mrs. Astor is remem-
bered as a dignified lady of the old school, a person of much loveliness of
character and sweetness of manners. Her husband was well read ; he
spoke the French and German languages with fluency and with a perfect
accent, and was among the most courteous men in Society. Of these
parents, on the loth of June, 1822, and in this City, the subject of this
address, John Jacob Astor, the second of the name, was born.

It need hardly be said that great care and attention were bestowed on
his education. Its foundation was completed at Columbia College,
where he was graduated in the class of 1839. He was then sent to Got-
tingen, where his father had pursued his studies thirty years before. On
returning to America, he entered the Law School of Harvard University,
took its diploma, and spent a year in this City in the practice of the law.
Master of the German and several other foreign languages ; a good classical
scholar ; acquainted with the principles and practice of the law, and in-
heriting from his father and grandfather those qualities which fit men for
serious work and grave responsibility, he began that career which has now
terminated in the peace and rest of God.

On the 9th of December, 1846, occurred his marriage with Charlotte
Augusta Gibbes. That lady was of a South Carolina family ; she, and
her future husband had been acquainted with each other from their child-
hood, and their attachment was one of those on which it helps and cheers
the mind to dwell; unwavering devotion, unshaken fidelity, love without
dissimulation ; alas ! how often do we miss them in the married state 1
To this auspicious union it will be a pleasure to revert, at a later point
in the course of these remarks.

Fourteen years now passed ; they were devoted to attention to the
Astor Estate, which, already large and steadily increasing, gave scope to
the undivided activity of its owners. It was a predestination which called
him to take up that work ; not to have done his best would have been a
dereliction of duty. Great wealth is a trust, and an honourable one.
Under free institutions, there can be no interference with its acquisition by
fair and honest means ; and, once acquired, it imposes the heaviest of re-
sponsibilities. It was the obvious duty of the possessor of the largest fortune
in America, to keep it together as it came to him, to exercise a wise and
generous stewardship thereof during his life, and to transmit it in sound

I 20 ^"^^''^ /• /• -^s^^''

Online LibraryNew York Genealogical and Biographical SocietyThe New York genealogical and biographical record (Volume 63) → online text (page 16 of 30)