- Historic Sites
The American Heritage
A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
After graduating from high school in 1855, he worked as a bookkeeper and clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. Amid the Allegheny oil boom of the 1860s, his dealings in commodities led naturally to refining and an operation that in 1870 emerged as Standard Oil, of which he was named president. It was at first only one of many small outfits, but under his aegis it absorbed most of its competitors, and by 1881 it controlled about 90 percent of the nation’s oil business, benefiting from what many considered unfair advantages, such as railroad rebates. In 1882 Standard Oil invented the trust to get around laws against owning businesses in more than one state; in 1892 the Standard Oil trust was theoretically broken up as an illegal monopoly, but it survived until 1911 by the rise of another novelty, the holding company. Rockefeller retired in 1897. By 1922 he had given away about a billion dollars to family members and charity and kept only about twenty million for himself.
In 1848 the twelve-year-old Carnegie emigrated with his impoverished Scottish family to the United States. He began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a telegrapher and rose to be its superintendent of military transportation during the Civil War; he resigned in 1865 to pursue his own opportunities. After 1873 he concentrated on steel and built an empire that controlled every aspect of its manufacture; by the turn of the century, his mills produced more steel than all of Great Britain. In 1901 he sold it all to the newly formed United States Steel Corporation, retired completely, and became a megaphilanthropist, distributing almost all his fortune to build public libraries and establish a number of foundations and educational and research institutions.
At sixteen he bought his first sailing vessel to ferry passengers and produce between his native Staten Island and New York City; in 1829 he started a steamship line. He set his rates so low that his rivals either had to pay him to avoid their routes or had to sell out to him. During the gold rush his faster, cheaper passage from New York to San Francisco captured most of the traffic. Foreseeing American shipping’s decline, he abruptly sold his fleet in the early 1860s to concentrate on railways; he eventually got hold of the Hudson River Railroad and the New York Central and combined them and acquired the Lake Shore &C Michigan Southern to establish a through route between New York and Chicago in 1873. He passed on most of his fortune to his son, William H.
JOHN JACOB ASTOR
He started out in the fur business as a clerk but quickly moved on to work for himself. Exchanging American furs for European firearms and musical instruments, by the 1820s he had built up the largest fur-trading business in the United States. When the government asked its wealthiest citizens to help fund the War of 1812, he did his part—clearly to his advantage, paying only eighty-eight cents on the dollar for two million dollars’ worth of government bonds. When the fur business began to wane, he coolly sold out and refocused on his already flourishing real estate investments, buying up lots in the desolate northern part of Manhattan and gambling that the growing city would catch up. It did.
WILLIAM H. GATES III
From the moment he saw his private school’s primitive computer, he was obsessed. Programming jobs for Seattle-area companies soon followed, and by the time he was twenty-one he had dropped out of Harvard, licensed a compiler for BASIC to the manufacturers of the first microcomputer, and cofounded Microsoft. Microsoft vaulted forward in 1980, when IBM asked it to design an operating system, MS-DOS; during the eighties the blockbuster programs Excel, Word, and Windows followed. Vital to Microsoft’s success has been Gates’s ruthless competitive edge, honed from youth at family pickleball tournaments and jigsawpuzzle-assembling races; the federal government’s on-again, off-again antitrust battles with his company have raged since 1990.
At fourteen he got a job as a cabin boy on a trading voyage to Haiti; he quickly rose to be part owner of a ship and then to develop a fleet that traded to the West Indies, Europe, and Asia. His care and resource in directing his ships through waters troubled first by the French Revolution and then by the Napoleonic Wars amassed him a fortune, and around the turn of the century he shifted his attention to real estate, insurance, and banking. During the War of 1812 he averted a financial crisis with the help of John Jacob Astor (No. 4) by underwriting most of a war loan to the government.
A. T. STEWART
With a five-thousand-dollar inheritance, this Scotch-Irish immigrant set up a small dry goods shop in New York in 1823. He outgrew several locations, built a lavish “Marble Palace,” outgrew that, and built an even more spectacular eight-story-tall “Iron Palace,” which became the world’s largest retail store when it opened in 1862. His stores were among the first to offer fixed prices, and they attracted the wealthy and fashionable. The bulk of his fortune, however, was gained through wholesaling and especially through heavy investments in New York City real estate. Dying without an heir, he left his fifty-million-dollar fortune to his wife, who passed control of it to his former attorney, who grossly mismanaged it. Two years later his coffin was stolen from the grave and successfully held for ransom.