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This is an intimate portrayal of history as it is really lived. It is so much more than just a list of things that happened at a certain time and place. It isn’t a simple rhyme, “In fourteen-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and everything is just wonderful. Instead, this book puts you, the reader, into real life-and-death situations where the decisions that must be made are laden with absolute doubt on many dimensions. So very much depends on the style and character of the leaders!

In 1810 John Jacob Astor, a newly wealthy man who was only a few years earlier a poor immigrant from Germany, was highly motivated, intelligent, foresightful, and a terrific salesman of long-range ideas. He worked out a detailed method for teaching Indians in the Oregon territory how to catch fur-bearing animals by the thousands, trade them to his men along the Columbia River and its tributaries, and then he would ship the furs to China where they could be sold for a hundred times what he paid for them in trade goods, such as the blankets, knives, and high-tech products of the age. He then bought luxury goods in China and sold these to Europeans and Americans, also at a huge markup. 

Astor had the backing of President Jefferson, whose Lewis and Clark expedition had recently led a large journey of discovery overland to the Pacific Ocean and back. Great efforts were made to find the perfect people to lead two separate parties to the mouth of the Columbia River and found a large fur-trading post which would be a seaport to the world. The parties included a ship captained by a successful war hero, Jonathan Thorn, and an overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt, a sophisticated businessman whom everyone described as very competent.

The journey begins with considerable difficulties, but that is to be expected for such an ambitious plan, which would be worldwide in ambition and scope, and everyone pushes forward with hope and ardor. The author does a great job of blending the people and their problems, the incredible friendliness at first and treachery after a couple years of daily torments.

This is a book worth reading for anyone who is preparing for a grand adventure themselves. It illustrates how good people can perform spectacularly well in many situations, struggling to the edge of death, and sometimes beyond, and still fail, pick themselves up, only to fail again, over and over, but with no retreat possible because they have spent a year of travel getting to this location beyond any known map. Now in the dead of winter they find themselves in an impassable place that is now known as Hell’s Canyon without any food, and two weeks away from any possible food. What good is the monetary backing of a billionaire a year away by overland travel? Okay, what would you do now? Starve to death? Or make a decision to go forward, or back, or sideways, or just sit and hope for something to save your ass?

These kinds of situations are presented to you throughout this book.

Astoria – Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark

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