How The Astor Family Really Got So Rich

The Astor family definitely left its mark on American history. One of the wealthiest families in history, their name has been tagged onto streets, neighborhoods, parks, schools, towns, libraries, and other public places from the east coast to the west. At one point in the 19th century, the Astor family owned so much real estate in the Big Apple that they earned themselves the nickname the "landlords of New York."

But just how does one family get so filthy, stinking rich? According to, the Astor family paterfamilias, John Jacob Astor (pictured above), did it in a way not uncommon in America: by recruiting the U.S. government to help him out. In the late 18th century, Astor had amassed a hefty $250,000 fortune — a bankroll worth about $5 million in modern greenbacks — in the fur trade. But the War of 1812 took a toll on that estate after the men working his Pacific Fur Company outpost in what is now the state of Oregon got scared and sold everything to a Canadian company. After the war, Astor lobbied Congress to pass a bill that prohibited non-U.S. citizens from owning fur companies in the country, pretty much giving him a monopoly on the lucrative trade, and Astor was back in business. Then, after making a quick buck in something completely illegal and unethical, he was really ready to take New York City by storm.

The Astor family also got rich by selling illegal drugs

While pulling himself up by his bootstraps — well, no, not really. While lobbying Congress for a government handout, John Jacob Astor decided he'd turn a quick, sleazy profit by smuggling opium into China. It was 1816, and he was still recovering from the Pacific Fur Company fiasco, so he bought 10 tons of opium from what was then the Ottoman Empire, now the country of Turkey, and shipped it via a fur trading ship to China, where it had been illegal for 17 years. Thus, Astor began a time-honored tradition of prominent Americans laying the foundations of generational fortunes by selling opium to China. (Another one who did so was Warren Delano Jr., granddaddy of future U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as The New York Times explains.)

After drug dealing and getting Congress to help him create a monopoly, Astor bought heavily into the New York City real estate biz. He bought the estate of disgraced former Vice President Aaron Burr for a steal, then chopped it up and rented the parcels out at ridiculously high rates. He then followed the northward expansion of the city, making money hand over fist. In his will, Astor left the equivalent of $10 million in today's dollars to the city of New York to build a library in his name. That hefty sum, however, was chump change compared to the entire fortune he left his family: his $20 million estate would be worth around $100 billion today.