10 Fascinating Facts about the 10 Richest Americans
John D. Rockefeller, the founder and largest shareholder of Standard Oil, was the richest American of all time. He’d be worth an estimated $253 billion in 2013 dollars. That’s 3.2 times the net worth of Bill Gates, the richest person currently living.
Stephen Van Rensselaer was the only one to inherit his fortune, which traces its roots to a Dutch diamond and pearl merchant. In 1630, the elder van Rensselaer received a land grant from the Dutch West India Co., encompassing Albany, New York and the surrounding area.
When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, his estate was equivalent to 20% of the nation’s money supply. Had his heirs liquidated his assets, it would have thrown the United States into an economic depression worse than even the debilitating Great Depression of the 1930s.
Jay Gould was the stereotypical robber baron of the Gilded Age, acquiring control over the infamous Erie Railroad. His sworn enemy, Cornelius Vanderbilt, once said of Gould: “No man could have such a countenance as his, and still be honest.”
Andrew Carnegie started out as a secretary and telegraph operator for Thomas A. Scott, an executive of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Carnegie later industrialized the production of steel, without which skyscrapers wouldn’t have been possible. He gave his entire fortune to charity.
Neither of the bankers on the list – Stephen Girard and Richard Mellon – were based in New York City. Their banks were headquartered instead in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, respectively. Notably absent is J.P. Morgan, namesake of the biggest bank in America today, JPMorgan Chase.
Three of the people on the list were born before the American Revolution. And six were born in the 1800s. The latter is no coincidence, as the Gilded Age, spanning from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the Panic of 1907, was the greatest economic era in American history.
Five of the richest Americans became wealthy after immigrating to the US: Stephen Girard (France), John Jacob Astor (Germany), Alexander T. Stewart (Ireland), Fredrich Weyerhauser (Germany), and Andrew Carnegie (Scotland).
Some of these men earned fortunes in multiple industries. For instance, John Jacob Astor was originally a successful fur trader who then magnified his wealth by purchasing large parcels of New York City. Cornelius Vanderbilt earned his first fortune in steamboats before switching to railroads.
John D. Rockefeller lived the longest of the group, dying in 1937 at the age of 92. Jay Gould had the shortest life, dying at only 56. The average lifespan of the 10 was 79 years old. This helps explain why Rockefeller died so much richer, as he had an average of 13 more years to work with.
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