New Nonfiction: Astoria – Peter Stark

In 1810 John Jacob Astor funded, with Thomas Jefferson’s endorsement, a cross-country expedition to found the first U.S. trading post in the Pacific Northwest. It was an epic journey that rivaled the scope and audacity of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Taking place over the course of three years, 140 members of two advance parties struck out for the Pacific Coast—one over land through the Rockies and one by sea rounding Cape Horn—losing nearly half the men to a variety of grisly deaths and madness.

In writing Astoria, author Peter Stark brings to light a journey that opened the Oregon Trail and made the way for the settling of the Northwest. Surprisingly to me, it’s a story that hasn’t been popularly told since an 1835 account by Washington Irving. This new telling includes journal accounts by participants, correspondence and oral histories, and research from Astor’s own papers.

Stark himself is as much an adventurer as a journalist and it shows in Astoria. His previous book looked at the limits of human endurance and he comes armed with a deep understanding of the physical and physiological effects of starvation, scurvy, hypothermia and other hardships the explorers endured. He also paddled, hiked and climbed parts of the route himself, bringing first-hand vividness to the story telling.

Advance reviews are very strong and media coverage kicks off with the NYTBR, Parade, the Washington Post, the WSJ and a first serial on None other than Nathaniel Philbrick says that Stark offers “a fascinating and sometimes terrifying window into the brutal and acquisitive essence of not only America but of the human condition. It’s also a great and … an ennobling tale of survival. Highly recommended.”

“A fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death. [Stark] recovers a remarkable piece of history: the story of America’s first colony on the continent’s West coast.”
Kirkus (starred review)

[A] page-turning tale of ambition, greed, politics, survival, and loss…chronicles Astor’s mad dash to establish a fur-trading company, Astoria, which would capture the territory’s wealth and allow Jefferson to inaugurate his vision of a democracy from sea to shining sea…. Stark eloquently concludes that though Astoria failed, Astor’s vision and drive pushed settlers to establish a Western presence, altering the shape of the American.”
Publishers Weekly

“Stark offers a thrilling true-adventure tale filled with unforgettable characters, clashes of culture, ambition, and physical hardships from starvation to Indian attacks to cruel weather. A breathtaking account of an expedition that changed the geography of a young nation and its place in global commerce and politics.”

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival (9780062218292) by Peter Stark. $27.99 hardcover. 3/4/14 on sale.

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