How Rich was John D. Rockefeller?

In the list of the wealthiest people throughout history, the name “John D. Rockefeller” would always appear in the top rankings. Most of those lists are entirely factual, as there was one point in history that John D. Rockefeller was the richest man on the planet. If you have never heard of the name before, we are here to provide you with details about one of the most successful businessmen in the United States. Here are some crucial pieces of information about John D. Rockefeller.

Who was John D. Rockefeller?

John D. Rockefeller was born in the town of Richford in New York on July 8, 1839. His father was William Avery “Bill” Rockefeller, and his mother was Eliza Davison. Bill Rockefeller is particularly known for being a con artist who identifies himself as a “botanic physician” that sold elixirs to unknowing customers. Known to locals as “Devil Bill,” Bill Rockefeller lived a vagabond lifestyle and was frequently away from home. Moreover, Bill also had a mistress by the name of Nancy Brown, a housekeeper with whom he had two children, namely Clorinda (who died young) and Cornelia.

Because Bill Rockefeller wasn’t always home, Eliza Davison would often struggle to keep the house comfortable and livable for her two children, John and William Jr. To help her mother, John Rockefeller would earn extra money by raising turkeys and selling candies or potatoes to neighbors.

In 1851, Rockefeller’s family moved to Moravia, New York, and then to Owego, New York. At Owego, he attended Owego Academy around the same year, but the family moved once again to Strongsville, Ohio, in 1853. In 1855, at the young age of 16, he started working as an office clerk at a commission firm in Cleveland. The firm sold grain, coal, and other kinds of commodities and shipped them to various locations in the United States. John Rockefeller considered that day he started working at the firm, September 26, as an important day that helped shape his career, which is why Rockefeller often celebrated the day annually among his family members and employees.

Because of the knowledge that he gained from working at the firm, Rockefeller, along with a business partner named Maurice B. Clark, founded their own commission firm in 1859. In the same year, the first oil well in the United States was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and in just a few years, oil became one of the biggest commodities in the country. Rockefeller and a few partners then invested in a Cleveland refinery in 1863 to take advantage of the oil industry boom.

Standard Oil

John Rockefeller shortly after creating Standard Oil

The partnership between John Rockefeller and his partners, namely his brother William Rockefeller, Henry Flagler, Stephen V. Harkness, Samuel Andrews, and Oliver Burr Jennings, was abolished in 1870 when Rockefeller bought out the shares of his partners. When the partnership was abolished, the refinery was then renamed “Standard Oil,” which Rockefeller chose to symbolize that the company is up to the “standards” when it comes to quality and service. To help him in the business, Rockefeller partnered once again with his brother William, Henry Flagler, and other reliable business partners. John Rockefeller was the biggest shareholder of the company and ran it as its president.

In just several years, Standard Oil became a monopoly in the US oil industry, as it was able to purchase its rivals and gain more control over the oil in the country. In 1882, Standard Oil, along with the companies it had bought out, formed the Standard Oil Trust, which is supposed to control about 90% of the country’s oil pipelines and refineries. Because of Rockefeller’s overwhelming wealth and control in the oil industry, he has always been a subject of ridicule among journalists and politicians, who popularized the idea that he was greedy and he had nefarious schemes in exploiting employees and other businesses, like spying and getting crucial information that would help with taking over his rivals. By owning Standard Oil, he became the United States’ first billionaire, and it was rumored that he had a fortune that is worth about 2% of the country’s economy during the later 1800s. His peak net worth was reported to be at $23.6 million after it is inflation-adjusted with the value of US dollars in 2020. 

The Sherman Antitrust Act

Due to the growing controversies regarding Rockefeller’s monopoly of the oil industry, the US Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, which prohibits contracts, schemes, or deals that will restrain trade and keep only one company to thrive in the industry it belongs to. The law was passed in order to minimize monopolies in the country and give every businessman equal opportunities. Because Rockefeller’s business was a trust that is composed of multiple companies, and Ohio Attorney General by the name of David K. Watson filed a lawsuit against Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

By 1911, it was ruled that Standard Oil needed to be dismantled because of its violation of antitrust laws. Since Standard Oil was a massive company, it was separated into 34 entities, which include ESSO (currently known as Exxon), Sohio (now a part of BP plc), and SOcal (known today as the Chevron Corporation).

Philanthropic Ventures

Before Standard Oil was completely dismantled, Rockefeller had already retired from the industry and from running businesses. The country’s first billionaire then became a philanthropist as he was inspired by the later years of Andrew Carnegie, who became a philanthropist after becoming one of the richest Americans through the success of the steel industry in the 19th century.  

John Rockefeller with his son in the 1915

As a philanthropist, it was reported that Rockefeller donated about half a billion dollars to charities, laboratories, churches, and schools through his Rockefeller Foundation, which he founded on May 14, 1913, with his only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Frederick Taylor Gates, an American Baptist clergyman who served as Rockefeller’s philanthropic advisor. One of his most notable philanthropic projects was the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now known as Rockefeller University. John D. Rockefeller passed away on May 23, 1937, in his home in Ormond Beach, Florida, due to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the walls of arteries). 

Despite the scandals and controversies that he has faced while he was the president of Standard Oil, many people that have worked or acquainted with Rockefeller described him as a kind man who was just aggressive and ruthless in making his business successful. His kindhearted nature was prominently showcased through his philanthropic ventures in the later years of his life, which benefitted plenty of people in the United States and other countries around the world.