William Backhouse Astor Sr.

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William Backhouse Astor Sr.
William Backhouse Astor Sr.jpg
Astor, c. 1850
Born (1792-09-19)September 19, 1792
Died November 24, 1875(1875-11-24) (aged 83)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Resting place Trinity Church Cemetery, New York City, New York, U.S.
Margaret Alida Rebecca Armstrong
(m. 1818; her death 1872)
Children Emily, John, Laura, Mary, William Jr., Henry, and Sarah
Parent(s) John Jacob Astor
Sarah Cox Todd
Relatives See Astor family
Appletons' Astor John Jacob - William Backhouse signature.jpg

William Backhouse Astor Sr. (September 19, 1792 – November 24, 1875) was an American business magnate who inherited most of his father John Jacob Astor's fortune. He worked as a partner in his father's successful export business. His massive investment in Manhattan real estate enabled major donations to the Astor Library in the East Village, which became the New York Public Library.

Early life

William was born in New York City on September 19, 1792 and named after William Backhouse, a friend of his father who was a New York merchant.[1] He was a son of fur-trader John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) and Sarah Cox Todd (1761–1834).[1] His seven siblings were Magdalena (1788–1832), Sarah (1790–1790), John Jr. (1791–1869), Dorothea (1795–1874), Henry (1797–1799), Eliza (1801–1838), and an unnamed brother who died shortly after his November 13, 1802 birth.[2]

He attended local public schools. His spare hours and vacations were employed in assisting his father in the store. When he was sixteen, he was sent to the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he joined the German Student Corps Curonia of the Baltic German students; later he moved to the University of Heidelberg. He chose as his tutor a student, afterward known as the Chevalier Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen, with whom he also traveled.[3]


In 1815, he returned to the United States and entered partnership with his father, who changed the name of his firm to John Jacob Astor & Son and engaged in the China trade.[3] William's elder brother, occasional poet John Jacob Astor Jr., was sickly and mentally unstable. John Jr. was left incapable of working in the firm.[4] He worked there until his father's death. One source argued that his role in the company was never anything more than as "an industrious and faithful head clerk", despite his official title of head of the firm's chief subsidiary, the American Fur Company, in its last several years of its ownership by Astor & Son.[4]

Although William's fortunes grew with his father's company, he became a truly wealthy man when he inherited the estate, worth around $500,000 (equivalent to $13.0 million in 2018), of his childless uncle Henry Astor I, who died in 1833. When John Jacob Astor Sr. died in 1848, William became the richest man in America.[5][6]

Real estate

Following the example of his father, he invested in real estate, principally situated below Central Park, between 4th and 7th Avenues, which rapidly increased in value. For about 13 years prior to 1873 he was largely engaged in building until much of his hitherto unoccupied land was covered by houses. He was said to own in 1867 as many as 720 houses, and he was also heavily interested in railroad, coal, and insurance companies.[3] His management of the family real estate holdings succeeded in multiplying their value, and he left an estate worth close to $50 million. His house at Barrytown, New York, known as Rokeby, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.[7]

During the American Civil War he successfully brought a case against the income tax imposed by the United States government, which was ruled unconstitutional.[8]


He added to the bequest of his father for the Astor Library the sum of $250,000, of which he paid during his lifetime $201,000 in land, books, and money. The edifice was completed under his directions in May, 1853. In 1855 he presented to the trustees the adjoining lot, and erected thereon a similar structure, which was completed in 1859. He next gave $50,000 for the purchase of books. He gave much patient attention for many years to the administration of the library.

He gave $50,000 to St. Luke's Hospital, and in his will he left $200,000 to the Astor Library, in addition to $49,000, the unexpended balance of his earlier donation. The gifts and bequests of William Backhouse Astor Sr. to the Astor Library amounted altogether to about $550,000. In 1879, William's eldest son John Jacob Astor III presented three lots adjoining the library building, and erected on them a third structure similar to the others, and added a story to the central building. His outlay, exclusive of land, was about $250,000, making the entire gift of the Astor family more than $1,000,000.[3] In 1852–53, he built the St. Margaret's Home at Red Hook, New York and supported it until his death in 1875.[9]:3, 10–11

Personal life

On May 20, 1818, William married Margaret Alida Rebecca Armstrong (1800–1872), the daughter of Senator John Armstrong Jr. and Alida (née Livingston) Armstrong. Her mother, a member of the prominent Livingston family, was the youngest child of Judge Robert Livingston and Margaret (née Beekman) Livingston as well as the sister of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and Secretary of State Edward Livingston.[10] Her father, John Armstrong Jr. was President James Madison's second Secretary of War.[11] Together, William and Margaret had seven children:[12]

  1. Emily Astor (1819–1841), who married Samuel Cutler "Sam" Ward (1814–1884),[13] a financier/lobbyist/author, on January 5, 1838, and had two children.[a]
  2. John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890),[14] who married Charlotte Augusta Gibbes (1825–1887)[15] on December 9, 1846, and had one son.[14]
  3. Mary Alida Astor (1823–1881), who married John Carey (1821–1881) on April 16, 1850 and had three children.[16]
  4. Laura Eugenia Astor (1824–1902), who married Franklin Hughes Delano (1813–1893),[17] on September 17, 1844 (no issue).[18][19][b]
  5. William Backhouse Astor Jr. (1829–1892),[20] who married socialite Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn (1830–1908) on September 20, 1853, and had five children.[21]
  6. Henry Astor III (1830–1918),[22] who married Malvina Dinehart (1844–1918) in 1871 (no issue).[23]
  7. Sarah Todd Astor (1832–1832), who died in infancy.

Margaret Astor died on February 15, 1872, William Astor survived his wife by three years dying on November 24, 1875 in his townhouse at Lafayette Place in New York City.[12] He was buried next to his wife in the Astor vault at Trinity Church Cemetery, designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, in New York City.[24]

Astor's local newspaper The New York Times eulogised,[12]

Mr. William B. Astor. an illness of four days ends an honored and successful life the public events in Mr. Astor's career a ripe scholar and philanthropic man. Mr William B. Astor, after an illness of only a few days, died at his residence in this City yesterday at 9:30 A.M., aged eighty three years. Mr. Astor was in his usual good health, except for a slight cold, until Saturday of last week. On that morning his cold began to trouble him and occasioned a severe cough.[12]


  1. ^ Samuel Cutler Ward, a banker with Prime, Ward & King, was the son of Samuel Ward and the brother of poet Julia Ward Howe.[13]
  2. ^ Franklin Hughes Delano was the brother of Warren Delano and the uncle of Sara Ann Delano, who married James Roosevelt I (the parents of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born in 1882).
  1. ^ a b Reynolds, Cuyler (1914). Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation. Lewis Historical Publishing Company. p. 1261. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  2. ^ Emmerich, Alexander (2013). John Jacob Astor and the First Great American Fortune. Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina, 28640: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.
  3. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Astor, John Jacob" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  4. ^ a b W. J. Ghent (1929). "Astor, William Backhouse". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  5. ^ The Century. Century Company. 1876. p. 884. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  6. ^ Hamilton, Richard F. (2017). America's New Empire: The 1890s and Beyond. Routledge. p. 14. ISBN 9781351532181. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  7. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  8. ^ Huret, Romain D. (2014). American Tax Resisters. Harvard University Press. p. 1842. ISBN 9780674369405. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  9. ^ "Cultural Resource Information System (CRIS)" (Searchable database). New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2015-12-01. Note: This includes Peter D. Shaver (May 2006). "National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: St. Margaret's Home" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-12-01. and Accompanying photographs
  10. ^ Livingston, Edwin Brockholst (1910). The Livingstons of Livingston Manor: Being the History of that Branch of the Scottish House of Callendar which Settled in the English Province of New York During the Reign of Charles the Second; and Also Including an Account of Robert Livingston of Albany, "The Nephew," a Settler in the Same Province and His Principal Descendants. Knickerbocker Press. Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  11. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Astor, William Backhouse" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  13. ^ a b "A Famous Lobbyist Dead; Sam Ward Dies in Italy in His Seventy-First Year. a Man Who Enjoyed Himself in Making Others Happy--Prince of Good Fellows and Friend of Great Men". The New York Times. 20 May 1884. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  14. ^ a b "John Jacob Astor Dead; Heart Disease Carries Him Off Suddenly. the End of a Placid and Useful Life Full of Good Deeds -- William Waldorf Astor His Only Heir". The New York Times. 23 February 1890. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  15. ^ "Mrs. Astor Dying.; the Family Watching the Last Hours of the Millionaire's Wife". The New York Times. 12 December 1887. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  16. ^ "Wills of Mr. and Mrs. Carey.; How They Dispose of Two Large Estates". The New York Times. 22 May 1881. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  17. ^ "DIED. DELANO". The New York Times. 25 December 1893. Retrieved 20 March 2018. At Monte Carlo, Monaco, on Dec. 23, 1893, Franklin H. Delano of New-York City
  18. ^ (FDR Presidential Library)
  19. ^ "Franklin H. Delano". The New York Times. 25 December 1893. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  20. ^ "William Astor Is Dead; Stricken Suddenly at the Hotel Liverpool, Paris. He Leaves a Fortune of Many Mill- Ions -- John Jacob Astor Will Inherit It -- the Body Will Be Brought Home for Burial". The New York Times. 27 April 1892. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  21. ^ "MRS. ASTOR DIES AT HER CITY HOME; Only Her Daughter, Mrs. M. Orme Wilson, with Her When the End Came Early Last Night. HEART TROUBLE KILLED HER Col. Astor and His Wife Had Left His Mother When the Last Sinking Spell Set In -- Her Notable Career". The New York Times. 31 October 1908. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  22. ^ "ASTOR WHO MARRIED POOR GIRL NO PAUPER; Gave Up $30,000,000 for Love of Gardener's Daughter, but Still Has Princely Income. IN RETIREMENT 50 YEARS Holds Trust Right In 125 Rich Parcels of Manhattan Realty Now Worth Millions". The New York Times. 15 July 1917. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  23. ^ "HENRY ASTOR DIES IN COUNTRY HOME; Grandson of the Original John Jacob Astor Had Been Estranged from Brothers. WAS IN HIS 87TH YEAR He Inherited 119 Parcels of Manhattan Real Estate, but LivedSimply at West Copake". The New York Times. 8 June 1918. Retrieved 20 March 2018.

Further reading

External links

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