The American Heritage 40: A Ranking of the Forty Wealthiest Americans of All Time

By Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Robert et al. | American Heritage, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The American Heritage 40: A Ranking of the Forty Wealthiest Americans of All Time


Klepper, Michael, Gunther, Robert, Baik, Jeanette, Barth, Linda, Gibson, Christine, American Heritage


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

1 JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER

1839-1937

Oil $900 million (in 1913) Gross national product (GNP) divided by estimated net worth (ENW): 44 Today's equivalent value: $189.6 billion

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.

2 ANDREW CARNEGIE

1835-1919

Steel $250 million (in 1901) GNP/ENW: 83 Today's value: $100.5 billion

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.

3 CORNELIUS VANDERBILT

1794-1877

Shipping, railroads $105 million GNP/ENW: 87 Today's value: $95.9 billion

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. lie 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 & 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.

4 JOHN JACOB ASTOR

1763-1848

Fur trade, real estate $20 million GNP/ENW: 107 Today's value: $78 billion

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.

5 WILLIAM H. GATES III

1955

Computer software $61. …

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