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The American Heritage

June 2024
17min read

A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)



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.



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.



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.



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.



He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1852 and several years later found a job at a sawmill in Rock Island, Illinois, where he worked his way up to foreman. With money he had saved he entered into a partnership with his brother-inlaw. It was a good time to be in the lumber business; the growing nation was gobbling up wood for construction and fuel. His company accumulated more and more acres of forestland until at his death in 1914 it owned more than two million acres across Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Pacific Northwest.



A self-made man whose fortune really took off when he began to speculate in railroad stock, Gould routinely engaged in hard-handed market tactics, such as corners, pools, and bear raids. On September 24, 1869, his attempt to corner the gold market triggered Black Friday, ruining many investors. He turned to Western railroads, starting with holdings in the Union Pacific and the Kansas Pacific, and by 1890 he owned half the trackage in the Southwest. He also picked up the New York World , Western Union, and the New York elevated railways.



Having started out as an errand boy at a dry goods store in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, by 1865 he was a partner in an established Chicago dry goods house. By 1881 he had bought out his two partners and renamed the business Marshall Field and Company, and by 1895, despite several severe setbacks, the store was grossing forty million dollars a year. He made up the slogan “The customer is always right,” and he introduced openly displayed prices, liberal credit, and the ability to return merchandise (and was first to put a restaurant in a store); he also knew how to both anticipate and create consumer demand.



The only member of this list ever to hula down Wall Street in a grass skirt—he did so after losing a bet to his employees that they couldn’t raise their pretax profits above 8 percent—Walton was a small-time shopkeeper who invented the superstore as the most efficient way to serve rural communities. His stores profited not only by serving places that others overlooked but also by employing innovative inventory-control techniques, using computers to monitor all the stock everywhere, and making all the stores satellites of warehouses within a day’s drive. His shelves were never empty of anything for more than a few hours, he negotiated directly with manufacturers to keep his costs low, and he always took care of his employees—even if it meant dancing down Wall Street.



The son of Anglo-Irish immigrants, Ford began building an automobile while employed as a machinist for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit; he presented his Quadricycle in 1896. In 1901 he entered a racer of his own design in a ten-mile match race and won, then persuaded investors to back the formation of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. In 1908 he introduced the sturdy and affordable Model T, and he constantly lowered its price, from $850 in 1908 down to $290 by the midtwenties, believing that greater volume would make up for the lower profit margin. He was right: By 1914 the company was selling 248,000 Model T’s a year, capturing close to 50 percent of the market. But he kept it in production far too long, nearly sinking the company before switching to the Model A in 1927.



After learning at the knee of the Columbia Graduate School of Business professor Benjamin Graham, the “oracle of Omaha” scraped together a hundred thousand dollars to start an investment partnership when he was twenty-five; it had increased its clients’ money an average of 30 percent a year when it was dissolved in 1969. By then Buffett had bought the small, worn-down textile firm Berkshire Hathaway; as a holding company it acquired undervalued companies whose stock values grew, and it is today a multibilliondollar powerhouse that owns stock in the Washington Post , Coca-Cola, American Express, and Capital Cities/ABC. Buffett retains a self-deprecating sense of humor and modesty: He does his own taxes, drives his own car, and says that Berkshire’s stock is overvalued.





When he was nineteen, Andrew joined his father’s bank, T. Mellon & Sons; his younger brother Richard came aboard as a partner after their father’s retirement in 1886. Thanks to their complementary personalities, they enjoyed a warm—and effective —family and business partnership. Andrew managed the books while Richard met with customers. Pittsburgh, where they did business, was the center of booming coal, steel, oil, and railroad industries. They had a keen eye for promising business ventures and backed a number of companies that became industrial giants, among them the Aluminum Company of America, Gulf Oil, and Union Steel. In 1921 President Harding appointed Andrew Secretary of the Treasury; his eleven-year tenure brought about a dramatic reduction in the national debt. In 1937 Andrew donated his impressive art collection, plus money for a building to house it, to create the National Gallery of Art. Richard’s passion was reviving rundown Pittsburgh.



This Irish immigrant failed to strike it rich mining in California and Nevada, so he set up a lumber business to serve prospectors on the Comstock Lode. In the 187Os he and a group of associates got control of a property near Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1873 the resulting Consolidated Virginia Mine produced enough silver to potentially destabilize the U.S. money supply. Fair converted his share of the wealth into railroads, buildings, land, and high living. He served a six-year Senate term but was better known for his family’s sad decline: Divorced, alienated from his children, he died alone. He stipulated in his will that anyone able to prove themself to be his widow or child would be entitled to fifty dollars.



He emigrated from England at sixteen at the urging of an uncle who owned a chemical-manufacturing company in Philadelphia and became its chemist; after the deaths of his uncle and his partner, he took over the business. The predecessor of the modern pharmaceutical company, it was the first to develop and manufacture cheap and effective substitutes for quinine to treat malaria, and it also pioneered the manufacture of citric acid, both a food flavoring and an ingredient in metal polish. He invested conservatively, primarily in land, and became the largest real estate owner in Philadelphia. He was intensely private and shunned society in favor of spending time at home, tending his garden of rare flowers.



Growing up surrounded by wealth—his father was John Jacob Astor’s confidential agent—he was determined to earn his own. In 1832 he used $15,000 he had saved to open his own import business, which he left in 1855 to become the president of City Bank. During the Panic of 1857 he bought controlling interest, for $5 a share, in the ailing Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad; he appeared to have been swept away by his passion for railroads, but seven years later it was trading at $240 a share. His contemporaries regarded his intimate knowledge of his investments as his greatest asset, but he built his lasting reputation on his sense of civic duty: He organized and chaired the committee of bankers that kept the Union solvent during the Civil War.



He seems to have become one of the wealthiest people in American history simply by being in the right place at the right time. His early investments made him comfortable, but a chance meeting with the roundly despised Jay Gould made him rich beyond his dreams. Gould became his friend and ally, and under Gould’s aegis he made a fortune in the stock market, where he is credited with originating puts and calls. He preferred small returns to big risks, and he eventually turned to moneylending; at one time he was purported to have twenty-seven million dollars out on loan. Luck was apparently ever on his side; he survived an assassin’s bomb that killed his clerk and the assassin and died quietly at home.



As a ten-year-old farm boy in New Jersey he supposedly told his mother, “I have seven brothers and three sisters. That’s enough in the family to be educated. I am going to get rich.” He dropped out of school at eleven to work as a clerk and within seven years had opened his own store. He began in mining, forming the Lackawanna Coal & Iron Company, but made his fortune in railroads. With a little help from political connections, he and some colleagues chartered the Union Pacific, which built the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad and became infamous for its owners’ business practices. At one time he served as president of sixteen railroads simultaneously, had enough acreage to cover half of New Jersey, and personally owned more track than anyone else in the world.



He left school at sixteen after his family’s house burned down and eventually made his way into the newspaper business. In 1879 he started the Tribune and farmer , which included a column for women written by his wife; the column was so successful that he spun it into Ladies’ Home Journal , whose circulation rose to two hundred thousand in its first year and a half. He bought The Saturday Evening Post in 1897 for a thousand dollars and had raised its circulation from two thousand to more than 2.7 million by the time of his death. He complemented a genius for marketing to the average American with a willingness to pay the highest prices for stories by writers like Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott.



This whiz kid was blessed with both an interest in computers and being a high school classmate of Bill Gates (No. 5)— though perhaps Gates was blessed with being his classmate too. He dropped out of Washington State to go to work for Honeywell before joining Gates in 1975 to found Microsoft, which took off in the early 1980s. He retired from active involvement in Microsoft in 1983 after learning that he had Hodgkin’s disease, from which he later recovered, but he is still the company’s second-largest stockholder. He also owns, among other things, the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.



A famously imposing man, he showed his mettle at twenty-one, when he enraged his employers by buying a shipload of coffee without their authorization and then turned out to have sold the entire cargo at a healthy profit before it had even arrived at the dock. He was born rich, but he made his own fortune along with a reputation as the most powerful, dependable, and forthright man on Wall Street, underwriting the creation of such corporations as General Electric, International Harvester, and U.S. Steel. He was actually powerful far out of proportion to his wealth; during the Panic of 1907 he averted national disaster by raising twenty-five million dollars in fifteen minutes and single-handedly keeping the Stock Exchange from closing early. Within twelve hours of his death, while vacationing in Rome, his family received 3,698 telegrams of condolence.



Never one to waste time, he left school at fourteen to begin his career and by twentyone had purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Using the money he made on Wall Street, he worked his way into railroads, which were his passion. By 1898 he was chairman of the executive committee of the Union Pacific and he ruled without dissent. But he speculated heavily with Union Pacific holdings, and his attempt to monopolize the Chicago rail market led to the Panic of 1901. He dreamed of building an around-the-world railroad that would cross the Bering Strait as his legacy.



He started out as a paperboy in Massachusetts and later was a railroad baggageman. As soon as he had saved six hundred dollars, he headed for the newly discovered oil fields of Pennsylvania. His success in investing there led the oilman Charles Pratt to invite him to join his Brooklyn firm. There he invented a machine that could separate the solvent naphtha from crude oil. Standard Oil took over Pratt’s company in 1874, and its officers eventually made Rogers vice president. He was a brilliant inventor, a ruthless businessman, a philanthropist, and, in an odd twist, Mark Twain’s business manager.



The son of a successful industrialist and politician, he studied at Yale before enlisting in the Union Army in 1861. After the war he invested in the iron industry and then in the new field of oil refining, and his company was the first to be acquired by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. When the Standard Oil trust was formed, he was made one of its nine trustees and served as its Washington lobbyist. He was charged with bribing the Ohio legislature to get his father a Senate seat and with paying off the Democratic party to have his brother-in-law named Secretary of the Navy; the charges were later dropped. He went on to help in the formation of U.S. Steel.



As chairman of Carnegie Brothers he would rise at six in the morning, walk two miles to work, and stay at his desk until six in the evening. That work ethic paid off early. At twenty-one, while serving as a bookkeeper in his grandfather’s distillery, he and some friends pooled their limited resources and built coke ovens in the surrounding Pennsylvania coal country. By age forty-one he had sold his majority share of the resulting empire to Andrew Carnegie and was chairman of Carnegie’s steel company. He survived being both shot and stabbed by an anarchist during a strike at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant—he insisted on telegraphing Andrew Carnegie in Scotland on the status of the strike before seeking medical treatment.



Once described as “a hard & cheery man, with no more soul than a shark,” he worked his way up from poverty as a Sacramento merchant before the engineer Theodore Judah came to him proposing the impossible: a transcontinental railroad. Quick to spot an opportunity, he joined with Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker—they became known as the “Big Four”—to incorporate in June 1861 the Central Pacific Railroad. It built east from California until meeting up with Union Pacific, which built west from Omaha. Of the Big Four, notorious for their dubious business practices (they scammed an estimated thirtysix million dollars on the project), he was perhaps the most audacious: He hired geologists to prove that the Sierra Nevada began twenty-two miles before the first foothills.



A groundbreaker of nineteenth-century consolidation, he knotted together all the street railways in Philadelphia and then helped assemble American Tobacco, U.S. Steel, and the International Mercantile Marine Company. He held his first job in a meat shop, won a contract to supply mutton to all the Civil War troops within ten miles of Philadelphia, and invested his fifty-thousanddollar profit, plus money he earned holding local political offices, in street railways and Philadelphia traction companies. Under his eye, Philadelphia streetcar technology advanced from horse to cable to electric, and his money and expertise helped build lines in New York and Chicago as well.



Patriots confiscated all the property belonging to his Loyalist family during the American Revolution, and perhaps that goaded him to set out to make his millions in land trade. Starting out in law, he traded his very first fee—two secondhand copper stills—for thirty-three acres of land later worth $2 million. He then bought his boss’s cow pasture for $5,000; its worth grew to $1.5 million under his ownership. His real estate deals brought him great wealth, but he carved a more lasting mark as a leader in a far less lucrative field, horticulture. He introduced new types of strawberry and black raspberry to America, and his experiments greatly boosted this nation’s fruit production.



Returning home from the gold rush at twenty-four with several thousand dollars in his pocket, he turned to meatpacking, and near the end of the Civil War he found a way to turn meat into gold, selling pork futures at forty dollars a barrel and then buying the pork for eighteen dollars after the Confederacy collapsed. With the nearly two-million-dollar profit that resulted, he built Armour & Company. He was one of the first to bring hogs to Chicago for slaughter at his own plant, and he cut waste by using leftovers to make glue, soap, and fertilizer. Hurt by the 189899 meat scandals that inspired Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle , he gave away perhaps half his fortune.



He went to California and became one of the few forty-niners who actually made their fortunes in gold. Then he went on to Nevada, where as one of a foursome (other members: James G. Fair [No. 16], John Mackay, and William O’Brien) he operated three thousand feet of the rich Comstock Lode and co-owned the Consolidated Virginia and California mines; they doled out a hundred million dollars to stockholders between 1874 and 1879. He and James Fair ran the Bank of Nevada and owned Virginia City’s sawmills. They once dared a New York Tribune correspondent to ride a boat with them down a breakneck mile-long log flume, built to carry lumber. “I would not make the trip again for the whole Consolidated Virginia Mine,” Flood remarked afterward.



A quiet, reasonable man, he does not jump out of the history books as do his partners in the Central Pacific Railroad, but as its treasurer, working behind the scenes, he provided the levelheaded business sense that made the other three extremely rich: Two are on this list; the other, Charles Crocker, missed by only two places. Lured to California by gold, he soon figured he could make more money supplying miners and opened an iron and hardware store with Collis Huntington (No. 28). It was in the apartment over that store that an engineer persuaded the soon-to-be Big Four to finance what would become the Central Pacific.



He had been practicing law for more than twenty years when Isaac Singer offered him a share in his thriving sewing-machine business in return for representation in a patent-infringement suit. Clark disapproved of Singer’s sexual escapades and egotism but recognized the chance to earn a fortune. He defended the company tenaciously, eventually organizing the first American patent pool for it. He pioneered the idea of installment buying, and he used nationwide demonstrations to persuade the public that the machine was easy to use. When Singer died in 1875, Clark took over as president and ran the company for the rest of his life.



When he swung at the golden spike at the completion of the transcontinental railway on May 10, 1869, he was crowning a venture that had taken eight years, surviving sixty-foot snowdrifts, dangerously rough terrain, and deserting workers. He missed- perhaps the only time in his life he failed to strike gold. He had gone to California in 1852 after a fire destroyed his Wisconsin law office; he sold miners’ supplies and raked in a fortune. Elected governor of California in 1861, he approved four public grants totaling well over a million dollars for the transcontinental line, lining his own pockets since he was already president of the Central Pacific. When his fifteen-year-old son died in 1884, he founded California’s great Leland Stanford, Jr., University in tribute.



Social norms being what they were, the list’s only woman was called the Witch of Wall Street in her day, but she contributed to that reputation too. After inheriting $7.5 million at the age of thirty and making the most of several bull markets—largely in railroads and real estate—she still wore dowdy, inexpensive clothes and once spent hours searching for a two-cent stamp she had dropped. Raised in a New Bedford Quaker family, she learned business on the wharves of her grandfather’s shipping firm. “There is no great secret in fortune making,” she once said. “All you have to do is buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness and be persistent.”



The Canadian son of Irish immigrants, he started out as a two-dollar-a-day laborer for a steamboat company in St. Paul and within a decade had his own fleet. In 1873 he persuaded the stockholders of the decrepit St. Paul & Pacific Railroad to sell out to him and his partners; he planned to extend the line to the Pacific. “HiIPs folly” reached Puget Sound by 1893 without any public subsidies, thriving on low grades, low cost, and skilled management. He enticed new residents into the area to ensure his railroad’s success, and his renamed Great Northern outlived bad economies that withered other railroads. To reach Chicago, he (with the help of J. P. Morgan [No. 23]) snatched the Northern Pacific and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy from under the nose of E. H. Harriman (No. 24), sparking a lifelong rivalry.



The younger, more gregarious brother of John D. Rockefeller (No. 1), he served as president of Standard Oil of New York, putting to work his considerable salesmanship skills to acquire refiners, pipelines, oil fields, and shipping lines. -When the Supreme Court dissolved Standard Oil in 1911, he went on to close numerous Wall Street deals as an officer of the National City Bank. Unlike his philanthropist brother, he kept secret what few gifts he gave.



Without ever going to sea, he applied his thorough understanding of ship design and geography to the prosperous merchant business he inherited, making himself rich and turning Salem, Massachusetts, into a major international seaport. All but one of his ships returned safely, largely because he chose for his crews the best men available and promised them a hefty slice of the profits. His ships were the first from New England to reach the Orient.



A German-born immigrant, he got into sugar in 1863 at the urging of his brother, with whom he established the Bay Sugar Refining Company in San Francisco. In 1867, after studying sugar manufacture in Europe, he built the California Sugar Refinery, which within five years was putting out fifty million pounds annually. He eventually had a monopoly in West Coast sugar, but a six-year family feud wrested away some of his empire late in his life.

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