Indigenous Peoples’ Day quiz:
Who did the MOST to ethnically cleanse the US of its native peoples?

Christopher Columbus? Andrew Jackson?

America’s first tycoon made his fortune on the drunken misery of Native Americans.

A #LiquorThread.🥃🧵 1/
Today, “Waldorf” and “Astoria” are synonymous with luxury, as the Waldorf (Germany)-born John Jacob Astor was America’s first multimillionaire. He was the Jeff Bezos of the 1830s (both accounted for around 1% of total US GDP). 2/
Astor is conventionally portrayed as THE embodiment of the rags-to-riches American capitalist spirit. With pennies when he stepped off the boat, Astor pulled himself up by his bootstraps to built a fur-trading mega-empire.

The reality is much darker. 3/…
“The Astor fortune was based on alcohol and fraud,” claims Howard Abadinsky’s classic, ‘Organized Crime.’ “Drunken Native Americans were systematically cheated by agents of Astor’s American Fur Company.” Opposition was met with violence and death. 4/…
Born in 1763, Astor immigrated to New York after the American Revolution. He bought high-end furs from trappers in (then-British) Montreal. He exported them to European markets, where muskrat, raccoon, fox, beaver & mink pelts were the height of luxury. 5/
In 1800, Astor bought 6 ships to expand commerce to East Asia. They called him “Prince of the China Trade."

King of the Drug Trade was more like it.

Each of Astor’s ships carried 5 tons of cheap Turkish opium per trip. 6/…
And since the China opium trade had been monopolized by the British East India Company, Astor’s opium had to be smuggled ashore.

America’s first multimillionaire was actually an illegal drug dealer. 7/
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), both the British & French routinely violated American maritime neutrality, prompting Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, outlawing trade with both... including British and French colonies in present-day Canada. 8/
The British & French who’d traded with the tribes of the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan & Wisconsin) had to leave. Astor consolidated his fur business into the American Fur Company (AFC), which soon monopolized the Northwest fur trade. 9/
President Zachary Taylor called the AFC “the greatest scoundrels the world ever knew."

Fur-trading white frontiersmen were either murdered, intimidated, or co-opted. Forced to buy provisions at AFC stores, many became perpetually indebted to the corporation. 10/
Many traders who delivered their pelts to AFC died mysteriously before they could cash their checks. Chalking the murders up to “barbaric Indians” ensured there’d be no criminal investigations.

If that’s how they treated their employees, imagine how they treated the Indians! 11/
To get at the Native Americans, first Astor had to take on the United States government that had vowed to defend and uplift them. 12/
From their very first encounters with European colonists—and their distilled liquors of a mind-bending potency & addictiveness—Native American leaders were the first prohibitionists, seeking protection from “the white man’s wicked water.” 13/
In 1802—at the behest of Miami chief Little Turtle—President Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to pass a federal prohibition against white traders trafficking in liquor with natives in the so-called “Indian Country,” beyond state and territorial jurisdiction. 14/
The resulting 1802 “Act to Regulate Trade & Intercourse with the Indian Tribes & Preserve Peace on the Frontiers” also created a series of gvt. trading posts called “factors” or “factories,” alongside frontier military forts. 15/
The idea of the “factory system” was a benevolent one. The gvt. trading posts would forego profit, and give Native American tribes top-dollar value for their furs, in exchange for high-quality goods: kettles, blankets, spades, plows & seeds.

But NO LIQUOR. 16/
The factory system was meant to build goodwill & encourage peaceful agriculture. And it was initially successful!

But if Astor wanted to monopolize the fur trade, he couldn’t have competition. So he used bribes & lobbyists in DC to destroy the factory system. 17/
“It was a fatal error,” wrote Hiram Chittenden in 1902. Gvt. trade would’ve been better for the natives, for conservation, & “would have averted the long and bloody wars, the corruption & bad faith... of a ‘Century of Dishonor’.” 18/…
But “good faith” is not how great fortunes are made.

Instead—with the factory system gone, Native American tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico were given over to Astor: one of history’s most predatory capitalists. 19/
With the demise of the factory system in 1822, Astor not only abandoned his opium-smuggling operation, but made liquor AFC’s primary medium of exchange.

There was more $$$ to be made in getting Indians drunk than getting the Chinese high. 20/
By 1825, AFC headquarters at the strategic Great Lakes chokepoint of Mackinac Island had some 3300 gallons of whiskey on hand, and just as much fortified wine.

AFC booze flooded over the Northwest, to the horror of American military garrisons. 21/
“It was the policy of the shrewd trader first to get his victim so intoxicated that he could no longer drive a good bargain.” The Indian would trade away everything for another cup or two. Then the trader would water-down the booze, cheating him further. 22/
“The duplicity and crime for which this unallowable traffic is responsible in our relations with the Indians have been equaled but seldom, in even the most corrupt nations,” wrote Chittenden. 23/…
Then the trader would extend the brave credit—trading away FUTURE furs he hadn’t even caught yet for more booze now—at even more predatory rates... ensuring that rather than taking up agriculture, AFC had a whole army of indentured natives trapping more furs. 24/
In 1830, US Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) condemned the “selfish traders whose interest it is to keep them in the hunter state [which] totally defeats the best views which have as yet to be adopted by the Government.” 25/
Rather than taking up agriculture & education, AFC profited from destitute & addicted nomadic native trappers gathering pelts.

It was a system of indentured servitude through addiction, all for the profit of AFC & John Jacob Astor. 26/
“Indian removal” was often done with promises that only distance could save native tribes from the white man’s liquor predations. But the American Fur Company doggedly pursued their source of wealth along the Trail of Tears to new reservations west of Missouri. 27/
“Removal” added another layer of native exploitation: ANNUITIES. Annuities were the meagre money & goods the US government paid tribes for giving-up their ancestral homelands and moving west. Most of it, too, ended-up in the hands of American Fur. 28/
Once on the reservations, annuity payment days were always accompanied by great drunkenness and violence... even though the reservations were “Indian Country” and thus still covered by the 1802 prohibition on trading liquor with Native Americans. 29/
Any time local authorities or the feds at Ft. Leavenworth stopped white liquor shipments in the interest of tranquility, AFC traders only had to claim “personal use.” If the feds persisted, an army of Astor lawyers descended to keep the liquor flowing to their Indian vassals. 30/
Astor soon had a paddlewheel steamship constructed—like the ones he used to smuggle opium to China—but now for smuggling whiskey up the Missouri River from St. Louis into “dry” Indian Country... all in defiance of federal prohibition law & common human decency. 31/
120 feet long, 20 feet abeam, with two 18-foot sidewheels, Astor’s “Yellow Stone” could smuggle thousands of gallons of whiskey at a time, and far faster than a flotilla of keelboats. 32/
“Wood provided the fuel for the boat, but whiskey was the fuel that made her voyage feasible and, indeed, made the American Fur Company thrive. ... Whiskey made John Jacob Astor the richest man in America.” 33/…
US agents at Fort Leavenworth sounded the alarm that not only was AFC illegally smuggling thousands of gallons of liquor into Indian Country to get the natives soused and take their annuities, they’d bribed enough officials to set-up an illegal distillery, too. 34/
“FOR GOD’S SAKE, FOR THE SAKE OF HUMANITY, EXERT YOURSELF TO HAVE THIS ARTICLE STOPPED IN THIS COUNTRY!” they wrote to William Clark in 1831. Otherwise,“the day is not far distant when they will all be reduced to the most abject misery inflicted by the Land of Civilized Man.” 35/
William Clark wrote to the War Department in the most urgent terms, describing how Astor’s AFC was now poisoning Native Americans by the barrel, with vast quantities of liquor the Company continued to insist were solely for the traders’ own personal use. 36/
“As those Traders have evinced so little good faith—such disrespect to the Government as to violate its most imperative laws, & so little humanity to the Indians themselves, as to disregard the most sacred provision for their protection,” Clark wrote... 37/
... “I shall conceive it my bounded duty to recommend the total & entire prohibition of this article in the Indian Country, under any pretence, or for any purpose whatever.” Clark demanded that American Fur traders be brought to justice for their liquor crimes. 38/
Unfortunately, Clark’s pleas were addressed to Secretary of War, Lewis Cass. Not only was Cass hand-picked by President Andrew Jackson as the architect of Indian-removal policy, he had for decades been John Jacob Astor’s most loyal political ally and defender. 39/
Cass ensured that Astor’s liquor profits through the American Fur Company’s liquor debauching would continue unimpeded. 40/…
In 1834, the aging Astor divested from his liquor-for-fur racket, selling his AFC shares to his business partners to bolster his real-estate speculation in Manhattan. Even as “New York’s Landlord,” his shady dealings would continue in different form. 41/…
But by then, Astor had already become by far the richest man in the world, by smuggling opium into China and getting Native Americans addicted to liquor and then robbing them blind. 42/
At what cost? By the 1840s, the half-continent east of the Mississippi had been ethnically cleansed. Remnants of once-prosperous tribes were dumped on the Great Plains, left to fend for themselves against the white man’s liquor predations, backed by the white man’s state. 43/
“Hovering like vultures,” wrote Harper’s in 1870, “the traffickers have caused wide-spread demoralization among all tribes by the sale of intoxicating drinks, and are justly chargeable with much of the woe that our Barbarian Brethren have suffered.” 44/…
Neither state nor church missionaries lifted a finger to stop the predation. More often than not, they sided with the forces of white greed. 45/
The fair-play factory system was undermined by liquor-imperialism: “a policy calculated to keep far from them all elevating and civilizing influences, and to perpetuate and intensify their degradation.”... 46/
“These are grave charges,” the Harper’s Weekly article concluded, “but a thousand tongues can testify to their truth.” 47/…
More details on liquor as an instrument of colonial dominance—both in the United States & around the world—can be found in my new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, now on sale everywhere.

Thanks for the read! 48/END…

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Do you like beer? 🍺

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