For $500, Opium Pusher John Jacob Astor Got Astoria

John Jacob Astor in a portrait by John Wesley Jarvis. Photo: Public domain

Long one of the biggest enclaves for Greek-American, Astoria, New York – in Queens, across the East River from Manhattan – got its name from John Jacob Astor, then the richest man in the United States in the 1830’s and 1840’s, a fortune built on fur, trade and selling opium to China.

He put his imprimatur on it for an investment of $500, and never stepped foot there.

Now bustling with new restaurants, high-rise buildings and a mecca for people who want a view of the New York City skyline and are willing to pay a premium for it, settling in old brick buildings and among commercial businesses, Astoria’s founding has long since been forgotten by most.

Astor’s money started off legitimately, in the fur business in Oregon before shifting toward shipping opium to China, addicting millions of people to the first opioids, History.com reported in a feature about his business doings that revealed the dark side of a man known for philanthropy.

By the 19th century, Old Astoria became home to the Manhattan elite who built mansions there, but not Astor. In 1839, a fur merchant called Stephen Halsey, officially founded the neighborhood and named it Hallett’s Cove.

Later, he petitioned to rename the region Astoria after America’s first multi-millionaire,  in return for his investment and Astor got it for maybe the second best deal of all, after the purchase of Manhattan from Lenape Indians for 60 guilders ($1,050) by Peter Minuit for the Dutch.

There was a battle over what the area would be called but Astor won out, noted Culture Trip and from his summer’s home in Hell Gate on Manhattan, he could see across the river to the new village on Long Island that bore his name.

In the 1830s, Astor shrewdly saw the future coming in the build-up of New York, taking money from his American Fur Company and other ventures to buy and develop large tracts of Manhattan real estate.

Astor correctly predicted New York’s rapid growth northward on Manhattan Island, and he purchased more and more land beyond the then-existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land, but leased it to others for rent and their use.

It was after World War II that immigrants from Italy and so many from Greece settled there that by the mid-1990’s Greek-Americans were nearly half the population before many headed to suburbs and other environs, but it’s still New York City’s Greektown, even as a large Arab contingent came in, along with South American immigrants, adding to the diversification.

But, as the site noted, it’s still the go-to neighborhood for great Greek food and restaurants and supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stands, and the Greek flag and Greek signs still abound on the land named for a man who didn’t shy from the drug trade to build his fortune.

HIGH STAKES

As History reported, Astor’s enormous riches were made in part by sneaking opium into China against imperial orders, having ships packed with it – first from Turkey – offloaded off-shore onto smaller vessels, bribing officials, showing corruption is not a new idea.

Born in Germany, Astor lit out for the United States, arriving when he only 18 and started to craft the businesses that would make him rich beyond imagination for the time, called a titan of trade, moving quickly into the opium business when he saw the potential for growth.

At first, Astor began to import Chinese tea and silks before turning to opium, apparently uncaring how many people died from using or got addicted – just like businesses today that don’t mind a body count if there’s money to be made.

He had as much power as money. It isn’t clear how much opium Astor sold during his years as a drug smuggler, and the business was just a lucrative sideline to his even more profitable fur trade at first, said History.

But he’s thought to have sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of opium between 1816-25 when he stepped away from the China trade for good. Historian John Kuo Wei Tchen said, Astor even brought opium to New York, openly selling it and even brazenly advertising it in New York newspapers for sale and as doctors began prescribing it, hooking a generation.

Author Frederic Delano Grant, Jr. who wrote The Chinese Cornerstone of Modern Banking said that American smugglers just wanted to make money, the site noted. “Perhaps the opium traders’ inability to see most Chinese as other than menials or curiosities helped them keep faceless the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who craved the drug they sold,” he wrote.