Astor Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Astor Surname Meaning

The name Astor is of Franco-German origin, from the Occitan astor meaning “goshawk.” It was used as a nickname characterizing a hawklike man and was said to have arrived in SW Germany through Waldensian refugees.

Astor Surname Resources on The Internet

Astor Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern Germany
  • to America (New York) and England

The first record of an Astor was in 1620 when Giovan Pietro Astor arrived in Zürich with his family and changed his name to Hans Peter Astor. Johann Jakob Astor moved his family to Nussloch in Baden in the 1660’s.

America. John Jacob Astor and his brother George, known as “George & John Astor,” were flute makers who came to England around 1778 from Waldorf in Baden, Germany.

In 1783 John Jacob Astor left England for Baltimore in Maryland and was active first as a dealer in woodwind instruments and then in New York where he made his mark as a merchant in furs, in trade to China, and finally in Manhattan real estate. He died in 1848 an extremely wealthy man, said to be the richest in America at that time, and was the forebear of the New York Astor family.

An elder brother, Henry Astor, had previously emigrated to America. He was a horse racing enthusiast and purchased a thoroughbred named Messenger which had been brought from England to America. The horse became the founding sire of all standardbred horses in America today. Henry Astor, however, died without children.

During the 19th century, John Jacob Astor and his descendants were one of the wealthiest families in the United States. For years, the Astor family were known as the “landlords of New York.” Their New York City namesakes are the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Astor Row, Astor Court, Astor Place, and Astor Avenue in the Bronx where the Astors used to stable their horses.

The Astors were also, through Mrs. Caroline Astor (the wife of John Jacob’s grandson), the arbiters of New York society in the latter part of the 19th century. Their time is described in Justin Kaplan’s 2006 book When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age. A large number of these Astors have been buried in Trinity Church cemetery in downtown Manhattan.

In the 20th century, the number of Astors in America began to decline and the male line came to an end. Brooke Astor died in 2007 at the age of 105. For nearly four decades she had ruled over New York society. With a name and fortune inherited from her third husband, Vincent Astor, she had played the role of grande dame to the hilt, lavishing her money on charities and dispensing advice on correct social behavior.

England. There were Astors in England as well. After a family rift William Waldorf Astor moved to England in 1891, became a British subject, and purchased the Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire. By marrying into two British noble families, his British descendants held two hereditary peerages, a viscountcy and a barony.

During the 1930’s the Astors and their Cliveden set were seen by some as appeasers to Hitler. These Astors also became English newspaper publishers. One line owned The Times from 1922 to 1966; another published the Observer from 1937 to 1964.

Astor Surname Miscellany

New York Landlord.  On arrival in New York after the Revolutionary War, John Jacob  Astor made his first fortune in furs and his second in trading opium to China. He decided to invest this money in New York real estate.

He foresaw in the 1830’s that the next big boom would be the northward expansion of New York City.  He therefore purchased more and more land beyond the existing city limits. Astor rarely built on his land and instead let others pay rent to use it.  He was known as the “landlord of New York” from the amount of property that he owned in and around the city.

He did build Astor House on Lower Broadway and he left a legacy on his death of $350,000 for the establishment of a public library in New York (that later became the New York Public Library).

Astoria in Queens was named after him, in order to persuade him to invest $2,000 in the neighborhood.  He only invested $500.  The name stayed nonetheless.  A bitter battle over the naming of the village was finally won by Astor’s supporters and friends.

From Astor’s summer home in Hell Gate, Manhattan (now East 87th Street near York Avenue), he could see across the East river to the new village named in his honor. However, Astor never actually set foot in Astoria.

John Jacob Astor and His Descendants. 

  • John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), patriarch of the family
  • – John Jacob Astor II (1791-1869), he had a mental disability and was cared for by his relatives
  • — William Backhouse Astor Sr. (1792-1875), the second son who inherited his father’s estate


  • – Emily Astor (1819-1841), who married Samuel Ward
  • – Margaret Astor Ward (1838-1875), who married John Winthrop Chanler
    – their children were collectively referred to as the Astor orphans


  • – John Jacob Astor III (1822-1890), senior brother of the family, active in philanthropy
  • – William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), moved to England after a family split (he was ennobled in England as the 1st Viscount Astor)
  • – William Waldorf Astor (1879-1952), newspaper proprietor and head of the inter-war Cliveden set
  • – William Waldorf Astor (1907-1966), Conservative politician who featured in the Profumo affair
  • – David Astor (1912-2001), publisher and editor of the Observer newspaper
  • – Michael Astor (1916-1980), friend of the writer Ian Fleming
  • – Jakie Astor (1918-2000), politician and horse racing enthusiast
  • – John Jacob Astor (1886-1971), newspaper proprietor, after purchasing The Times in 1922
  • – Gavin Astor (1918-1984), proprietor of The Times from 1959 to 1966
  • – John Astor (1923-1987), Conservative politician and MP


  • – William Backhouse Astor Jr. (1829-1892), yachtsman and early Florida developer (his wife Caroline Astor ruled New York society)
  • – John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), real estate developer who died when the Titanic sank.
  • – Vincent Astor (1891-1959), noted philanthropist (his wife Brooke Astor remained a prominent figure in New York society until her death in 2007).

Mrs. Astor in New York Society.  Caroline Schermerhorn was born into New York’s Dutch aristocracy, descendants of the city’s original settlers.  When she married into the Astor family in 1854, she brought, as Mrs. Astor, that aristocratic hauteur to the New York high society that was emerging.

She became its foremost authority and arbiter during the second half of the 19th century.  She would hold ornate and elaborate parties for herself and for other members of the elite New York socialite crowd.  None were permitted to attend these gatherings without an official calling card from Mrs. Astor herself.  Her social groups came to be dominated by strong-willed aristocratic females who indulged in conspicuous luxury and publicity in their gatherings.

These groups represented “Old Money.”  It was Mrs. Astor’s contention that one’s fortune had to be at least two generations old and that one had to be unencumbered by work in trade. Therefore upstarts such as the Vanderbilts were scorned as nouveau riche and unacceptable for admission into New York’s elite “400.”

Mrs. Astor in a Family Feud.  Until 1887, Caroline Astor had been formally known as “Mrs.  William Astor.”  But with her sister-in-law’s death that year, she shortened her formal title to “Mrs. Astor,” as she was then the senior Mrs. Astor, the only remaining one in her generation.

Her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, felt that his wife should be technically “the Mrs. Astor” as he was the only son of the elder brother of Caroline’s husband. He insisted that Caroline resume the use of “Mrs. William Astor.”  She refused.  The press sensationalized the family conflict and famously began referring to her as “The Mrs. Astor.”

On the death of Caroline’s brother-in-law John Jacob Astor III in 1890, his son William Waldorf Astor should by title have become the head of the Astor family. But his attempts at challenging his aunt’s pre-eminence in New York society ended up being frustrated.

He had had his father’s house torn down and replaced by the first Waldorf Hotel.  The hotel was specifically designed to overshadow Mrs. Astor’s mansion right next door.  “There’s a glorified tavern next door,” Mrs. Astor was famously quoted as saying.

Unwilling to live next door to New York’s latest sensation, Caroline Astor tore her own house down and erected another hotel at its site, the Astoria.  Soon the two hotels were merged and became the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

It was William Waldorf Astor who had been bested. He departed New York for London where he was subsequently to become an English Viscount.

John Jacob Astor on the Titanic.  It had been his honeymoon.  The 47 year old John Jacob Astor had married the 18 year old Madeleine Force and in the spring of 1912 they were returning to New York on the Titanic after an extended honeymoon in Egypt and Paris. Madeleine was pregnant with child on the voyage home.

They were in their cabin when the Titanic hit the iceberg.  Colonel Astor seemed unperturbed.  He went to investigate and returned, saying that the ship had struck ice but it didn’t look serious.

It was serious of course.  Miss Margaret Hayes gave this eyewitness version of how Astor met his death:

“Colonel Astor came out on deck with his wife as I was being assisted into a lifeboat. They both got into another boat. He had his arms about his wife and assisted her into the boat.  At the time there were no women waiting to get into the boats and the ship’s officer at that point invited Colonel Astor to get into the boat with his wife.  The Colonel, after looking around and seeing no women, got into the boat and his wife threw her arms about him.

The boat in which Colonel Astor and his wife were sitting was about to be lowered when a woman came running out of the companionway. Raising his hand, Colonel Astor stopped the preparations to lower his boat and, stepping out, assisted the woman into the seat he had occupied.  Mrs. Astor cried out and wanted to get out of the boat with her husband, but the Colonel patted her on the back and said something in a low tone of voice.”

Astor was last spotted smoking a cigar on the deck. His body was later pulled out of the sea. His wife gave birth to a son weeks later.

The Cliveden Set.  The Cliveden Set were a 1930’s right-wing upper class group of prominent individuals politically influential in inter-war Britain, who were in the circle of Lady Nancy Astor, the wife of Viscount Waldorf Astor.  Members included politicians, businessmen and newspaper publishers. The name came from Cliveden, a stately home in Buckinghamshire, which was the Astor’s country residence.

The “Cliveden Set” tag was coined by Claud Cockburn in 1937 in his journalism for the Communist newspaper The Week. He saw the Cliveden Set as being in favor of appeasement to Adolf Hitler and of wanting more friendly relations with Nazi Germany. As war became more imminent allegations against the group as being pro-Nazi grew more strident. This brought an effective end to Nancy Astor’s political career.

Astor Names

  • John Jacob Astor was the forebear of the Astor family in America. He started the family in its ownership of New York real estate.
  • Caroline Astor, or Mrs. Astor as she was generally known, was the arbiter of New York society in the late 19th century.
  • William Waldorf Astor was the Astor who came to England in 1891 and married into English nobility.

Astor Numbers Today

  • 200 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 300 in America (most numerous in New York)

Astor and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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