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John Jacob Astor. Oil on canvas, c. 1825, by John Wesley Jarvis. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Susan Mary Alsop.

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Astor, John Jacob (17 July 1763–29 March 1848), fur trader and financier, was born in Waldorf, duchy of Baden, Germany, the son of Jacob Astor, a butcher, and Maria Magdalena Vorfelder, who died when John was about three. His family was of the artisan class, and few records survive from his youth. Due in large part to a fine town schoolmaster, Astor’s education seems to have been better than average. It ended at age thirteen with his confirmation in the Lutheran church. At an age when many contemporaries became apprentices, Astor spent two years as an assistant in his father’s butcher shop but had little interest in learning the business....

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Chouteau, René Auguste (07 September 1749–24 February 1829), pioneer in the western fur trade and explorer, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was baptized on 9 September, 1749, the son of René Auguste Chouteau and Marie Thérèse Bourgeois. His father was a French immigrant who operated a tavern in New Orleans. The marriage of his parents broke up shortly after his birth, and his father returned to France. His teenage mother proved herself resourceful and eventually went to live with a prominent fur trader, ...

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Davenport, George (1783–04 July 1845), Indian trader and frontier townsite entrepreneur, was born in Lincolnshire, England. Nothing is presently known of his parentage or childhood, although he apparently enjoyed the equivalent of a good common-school education. At age seventeen he was placed with an uncle, a captain of a merchant vessel. In 1804 Davenport’s ship visited New York, where he broke his leg and had to be left behind to recuperate....

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Sarpy, Peter A. (03 November 1805–04 January 1865), fur trader and western entrepreneur, was born Pierre Sylvester Grégoire Sarpy in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Grégoire Berold Sarpy, a merchant and fur trader, and Pelagie L’Abadie, who had ties of blood and marriage with the family of ...

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Smith, Peter (15 November 1768–14 April 1837), land speculator, fur trader, and entrepreneur, was born near Tappan, New York, the son of Gerrit P. Smith and Wyntje Lent, the descendants of strongly religious seventeenth-century Dutch immigrants. Smith’s temporal life began well enough. He was in his mid-teens when he accepted his first job clerking for Abraham Herring, a New York City merchant. Smith soon demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit and a belief in his inherent abilities by opening his own shop, selling books, school and library provisions, canes, and snuffboxes from 1785 until 1788. He also sold theatrical supplies in response to his interest in acting, which he suppressed because of the religious scruples he held throughout his life....