THE ROCKEFELLERS: How A Few Poor Germans Became An Immortal American Dynasty

rockfeller political cartoon standard oil

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We’ve recently given you a few histories of the families who shapes America.But the history of the Rockefellers may take the cake. That’s because while others have lost their money, or their power, the Rockfellers have held on to their vast empire.

If you’ve ever filled up a tank of gas, banked at JP Morgan Chase or stepped foot in New York, you’ve been touched by the Rockefellers.

The Rockefellers most likely immigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the 1720s.

The original name was said to be 'Rockenfeller' -- and indeed there are numerous Rockenfellers who turn up in a Google search of that name with their purported home city of Neuwied.

Source: New York Times

John Davison Rockefeller was born in 1839.

His father appears to have held a series of odd jobs, including produce merchant; by no means did JD come from wealth. In 1852, the family moved to Cleveland.

Source: Hubbard, Silas. John D. Rockefeller and His Career. New York. 1914.

JD's big break came with the Civil War.

JD had at age 20 formed his own produce business partnership, and revenue from feeding Union troops earned him a minor fortune. He'd made $250,000 by war's end.

Source: Hubbard

The end of the Civil War coincided with the country's first oil boom.

Cleveland was also becoming a major logistics hub. JD was not exactly wedded to selling fruits and vegetables, and in 1865 he cashed out of the produce partnership to invest in an oil refinery.

Source: Hubbard

The business expanded, and in 1870 JD consolidated his holdings into Standard Oil.

In the early days, JD could be somewhat voluble. According to Ida Tarbell, the pioneering muckraker who could later claim to have brought down Rockefeller, upon learning of a particularly successful transaction, JD 'bounded from his chair with a shout of joy, danced up and down, hugged me, threw up his hat and acted so like a madman that I have never forgotten it.'

Source: Hubbard

Standard was worth $1,000,000 at its founding.

It was the largest company in the country.

Source: PBS

Standard's true break came from a massive kickback scheme.

The polite term for kickback used at the time was 'rebate.'

Competition among railroads for traffic was fierce. So in 1872, JD and some associates founded the Southern Improvement Company, with the aim of crushing smaller refineries in the Midwest by undercutting them on rail rates.

Source: Hubbard

When the scandal finally subsided, Standard Oil owned 22 of 26 refineries in Cleveland.

The Southern Improvement Company alone is worthy of its own slideshow. The scheme led to one of the country's first major Congressional inquiries. Tarbell would later write:

'The act incorporating the company was never published; the name of the member introducing it was never known, and no votes on it are recorded. The origin of the Southern Improvement Company has always remained in darkness.'

Source: Hubbard

The company swooped in on weakened refineries across the Alleghenies and into New York.

Source: PBS

At the age of 38, Rockefeller controlled nearly 90% of the country's oil refining capacity.

By 1879, he was among the 20 richest men in the U.S.

Source: PBS

The city of Cleveland could have been a contender. Alas, JD decided to move the family to New York in 1883.

A headquarters for Standard was built at 26 Broadway downtown. It was originally just nine stories.

Source: ExxonMobil

Rebuilt in the 1920s, it remains known to this day as The Standard Oil building.

Source: DNAInfo

In the 1880s, Rockefeller solidified his grip on oil markets throughout the country and around the world.

Eventually the country had had enough. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Sen. John Sherman of -- not coincidentally -- Ohio, was its principal author. The Standard Oil Trust was almost certainly its principal target, but it took another 21 years for the Trust to be broken up.

The Act remains in force today.


In the meantime, JD would help found the University of Chicago, in 1890, to improve his image.

He was prompted by a solicitation from the American Baptist Education Society, and gave $600,000 as part of a campaign to improve his image. He later called it 'the best investment I ever made.'

Source: Rockefeller Archive centre

The school's iconic neo-Gothic chapel bares the Rockefeller name.

It was designed and built by Bertrum Goodhue from 1914 to 1928.

Source: UChicago Architecture

The public relations campaign failed.

Led by President Roosevelt, the government launched at least three lawsuits against Standard.

Source: New York Times

Ironically, the government heat just made JD richer.

Selling off Standard assets caused JD's net worth to skyrocket to $900 million.

Source: PBS

Rockefeller lived to be 98.

He's regarded as the richest man in U.S. history.

Source: CNNMoney

JD had just one son, John Jr.

But there were four daughters -- and the list of Rockefeller family achievements explodes in the first half of the 20th century...

In 1926, Junior dropped $56 million on restoring colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Source: PBS

The same year, he spent $1.4 million to purchase land that would become Grand Teton National Park.

It's in Wyoming.

Source: PBS

Junior's wife, meanwhile, had opened what would become the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

It started out on the 12th floor of a mixed-use building on 57th Street before moving to a townhouse at its present location on 53rd.

Source: Museum of Modern Art

Junior started off at the oil company but eventually moved into real estate.

In 1930, he invested $250,000,000 to build Rockefeller centre (which was originally intended as the new home for the Metropolitan Opera). It was completed in 1939, and at the time was the largest private commercial development ever.

Source: Top of the Rock

Also in 1930, Junior became majority stakeholder of Chase Bank.

The bank had acquired his Equitable Trust Company and 'ever since' has remained associated with the bank. David Rockefeller, Junior's son, would later serve as CEO for 11 years. David turns 97 this June.

Source: JP Morgan Chase

Following WWII, the Rockefellers donated six blocks of land worth $8.5 million to be home of the United Nations.

The land was declared international territory.

Source: PBS

After Junior, the next major Rockefeller was Nelson, another son of Junior's.

He got an early start in politics, and at age 36 was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American (meaning Latin American) affairs.


In 1958, he ran for governor of New York.

He beat the incumbent, the legendary Averill Harriman, and would go on to serve four terms, through 1973.

Source: PBS

Meanwhile, Nelson's brother, John III, had donated $175 million to build Lincoln centre.

The entire plaza was completed in 1966.

Source: PBS

Nelson died in 1979 of a heart attack.

The circumstances proved a he was in the presence of a 25-year-old woman named Megan Marshack when he fell ill.

Source: New York Times

The most prominent Rockefeller today is Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV.

He ended up in West Virginia as a 27-year-old volunteer in President Johnson's anti-poverty VISTA program.


But Jay is just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike many prominent American families of a bygone era, the Rockefellers or places named after them are in the news every day.

Just this week, a society item in the Houston Chronicle featured Charles Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller III. (Try your own Rockeffeler hunt here.)


Rockefeller centre is basically synonymous with the holiday season.

Tourists ambush the space in Midtown Manhattan each winter to skate, shop, and check out the famous tree.

The family home in Westchester, called Kykuit, was landmarked in 1976.

It sits on 80 acres of land which JD Rockefeller started buying in the 1890s.

You may also have heard of a company called ExxonMobil.

That is the legacy firm of Standard Oil.

As of 2011, it was the largest company by revenue in the world.

Source: Wikipedia

Wanna learn more about the families who shaped America?

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