William Backhouse Astor

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William Backhouse Astor, Sr.

Birthdate: (83)
Birthplace: New York, NY, United States
Death: November 24, 1875 (83)
New York, New York, United States
Place of Burial: New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Jacob Astor and Sarah Cox Astor
Husband of Margaret Rebecca Astor
Father of Emily Ward; Bvt. Brig. Gen. John Jacob Astor III; Laura Eugenia Delano; Mary Alida Carey (Astor); William Backhouse Astor Jr. and 2 others
Brother of Magdalena Bristed; Anna Eve Cook; Sarah Astor; John Jacob Astor, II; Dorothee Langdon and 3 others

Occupation: fur trader, real estate
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William Backhouse Astor


William Backhouse Astor, Sr. (September 19, 1792 – November 24, 1875) was an American businessman and member of the Astor family.

Origins and schooling

William Backhouse Astor was the second-oldest son of John Jacob Astor and Sarah Todd Astor, and the only one to continue the Astor bloodline. Born in New York City, where he attended 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 Bunsen, with whom he also travelled.

Partnership with father

In 1815, when he was twenty-three years old, 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. (His brother, John Jacob Astor II, was, as one early-twentieth-century source put it, "feeble-minded," and incapable of working in the firm.) 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.

Although William Backhouse's fortunes grew with his father's company, he became a truly wealthy man when he inherited the estate, worth around $500,000, of his uncle, Henry Astor who died without children. When his father died in 1848, however, he became the richest man in America; he was the last member of the Astor family to enjoy this distinction.

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. 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.

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


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 B. Astor to the Astor Library amounted altogether to about $550,000. In 1879 his 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.


His wife, Margaret Rebecca Armstrong was the daughter of John Armstrong, Jr., James Madison's second Secretary of War. William Backhouse's bequests resulted in the first major division of the Astor fortune between his two sons, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and John Jacob Astor III. His sons, whose side-by-side mansions were on the site later occupied by the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (a family property) and then the Empire State Building, inaugurated an era of both more flamboyant living and more generous philanthropy than their austere father and grandfather.

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William Backhouse Astor's Timeline

September 19, 1792
New York, NY, United States
Age 26
New York, New York, United States
June 10, 1822
Age 29
New York, New York, NY, United States
Age 31
New York, New York, United States
Age 33
July 12, 1829
Age 36
New York, New York, United States
Age 37
Age 39
November 24, 1875
Age 83
New York, New York, United States