William was born in New York City to fur-trader John Jacob Astor and Sarah Cox Todd. He was one of seven siblings were Magdalen, Sarah, John Jr., Dorothea, Henry, Eliza and an unnamed brother who died shortly after his birth. 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 returned to the United States in 1851 and entered partnership with his father, who changed the firm name to John Jacob Astor & Son and engaged in the China trade. 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'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 childless uncle Henry Astor I. When John Jacob Astor, Sr. died in 1848, William became the richest man in America.
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