Canton Trade Plate*
Chinese Trade; American Fur Company; John Jacob Astor
18th-Early 19th Century
Stanley and Polly Stone Foundation, 1963
* May show Famille Rose influence
This Artifact Ambassador is a Chinese plate created for trade with the West. While European powers often dominated the Chinese trade, a unique relationship between John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and trade in the Orient is where this week’s story begins. The fur trade on the American frontier had primarily been the domain of foreign powers up until the end of the 18th century, first under the French and subsequently the British. When the United States government grew concerned in the 1790s about British traders’ influence over the Natives in the American West, they launched a concerted effort to crowd out this foreign influence by fostering American trade ventures. This was first addressed by establishing government-operated trading “factories,” and followed by the legal—at times even physical—protection of private American fur ventures.
One of the private fur companies that sprang up in this atmosphere at the turn of the century was operated by John Jacob Astor, an immigrant-turned-trader who attempted to break into the world of British-influenced Great Lakes trade with limited success. As he expanded his American Fur Company, however, Astor crafted an ambitious plan to attempt to bypass the competitive fur interests in the Northwest Territories and establish his trade on the Pacific coast in the disputed region which would later become the American Oregon Territory. From here, Astor even more ambitiously operated a fleet of ships which would allow him to supply the Chinese demand for furs in return for China’s fine exports. He was additionally able to profit from a relationship with Russian traders on America’s far western coasts. This was quite innovative at a time when most of America’s furs ended up in Europe. This week’s Artifact Ambassador is an example of the type of fine goods China would have produced to pay for Astor’s furs at the port city of Guangzhou.
Astor’s good fortune came to a startling halt, however, when the British seized his Pacific operation after the outbreak of the War of 1812. In the Northwest Territories, the American response to the war resulted in a prohibition of British nationals from trading in the United States territories. This further hampered Astor's existing relationships with British traders around the Great Lakes. Astor's keen entrepreneurial sense, however, soon identified an opportunity that portended a new avenue for success. The war had forced the United States government to finally become active in eliminating British trade and influence in the Northwest Territories. As treaties with previously pro-British tribes were being negotiated and the young nation’s military bolstered its defenses within the frontier’s system of remote forts, Astor focused his attention on the Great Lakes fur trade with renewed vigor. Now relieved of British-influenced competition, he gained the courage to venture capital to buy out remaining competitors. Astor's major investment began to pay off as his American Fur Company soon filled the void British traders had left before other American companies could become a major threat. The story represented by this piece of Chinese trade porcelain is a narrative of how the War of 1812 shattered one of America’s most successful (eventually) businessman’s Oriental dreams, but in the process, it opened the door to a new era in the Great Lakes fur trade which set the stage for our continuing Artifact Ambassador story.