Who is John Rockefeller: Discover the life and legacy of the American business magnate and philanthropist who revolutionized the oil industry, founded Standard Oil, and became the richest man of his time.
John D. Rockefeller: The Oil Tycoon's Path to Wealth and Philanthropy
John D. Rockefeller Sr., a renowned American business magnate and philanthropist, stands as one of the wealthiest Americans ever and the richest individual in modern history. Born into a humble family in Upstate New York on July 8, 1839, Rockefeller experienced several relocations before settling in Cleveland. At 16, he began working as an assistant bookkeeper and entered into multiple business partnerships from age 20, with a focus on oil refining.
In 1870, Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company, managing it until 1897 and retaining majority ownership. As kerosene and gasoline gained prominence, his wealth skyrocketed, making him the nation's richest person and granting him control over 90% of all U.S. oil. Oil served as the primary light source before electricity and as fuel following the automobile's invention. Rockefeller's influence extended to the railroad industry, which transported his oil nationwide.
Standard Oil, the first significant business trust in the U.S., revolutionized the petroleum industry through corporate and technological innovations. These advancements drastically reduced oil production costs and expanded access to the resource. However, the company and its practices faced scrutiny, notably from author Ida Tarbell.
In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil violated federal antitrust laws and ordered its dissolution into 34 separate entities. These companies evolved into ExxonMobil, Chevron Corporation, and other major corporations with record-breaking revenues. As a result, Rockefeller became the nation's first billionaire, amassing a fortune equivalent to 2% of the national economy.
Retiring to his Westchester County estate, Kykuit, Rockefeller spent the last 40 years of his life shaping modern philanthropy alongside other industrialists like steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. He used his wealth to establish foundations that significantly impacted medicine, education, and scientific research, pioneering a targeted philanthropy approach. Rockefeller's foundations played a vital role in nearly eradicating hookworm and yellow fever in the U.S.
Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University, as well as funded the Central Philippine University's establishment. As a devout Northern Baptist, he supported numerous church-affiliated institutions, adhering to total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. He relied on his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, for advice, and together, they had five children.
A staunch believer in capitalism rooted in social Darwinism, Rockefeller often stated, "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest." His unwavering faith guided his life and, in his view, contributed to his success.
The Early Life and Upbringing of John D. Rockefeller: Foundations of a Business Magnate
John D. Rockefeller, the second child of William A. Rockefeller Sr. and Eliza Davison, was born in Richford, New York. His family included an elder sister, Lucy, and four younger siblings: William Jr., Mary, and twins Franklin and Frances. John's father, of English and German descent, was a con artist and a traveling salesman, while his mother, of Ulster Scot descent, was a devout Baptist and homemaker.
William Sr., also known as "Big Bill" or "Devil Bill," sold elixirs as a self-proclaimed "botanic physician." He led a nomadic life and seldom spent time with his family. His schemes and double life—including bigamy—continued throughout his life. Eliza, despite her husband's absences and philandering, managed to maintain a sense of stability at home.
Eliza's frugality and teachings greatly influenced young John, who helped with household chores and earned extra money through various entrepreneurial endeavors. He learned from his father the importance of getting the better part of any deal, though his mother's influence was more significant in his life.
The family moved several times during John's childhood, residing in Moravia and Owego, New York, before relocating to Strongsville, Ohio. John attended various schools, including Owego Academy, Cleveland's Central High School, and Folsom's Commercial College, where he studied bookkeeping.
Despite his father's absence and frequent relocations, John was well-behaved, serious, and studious. His peers described him as reserved, earnest, religious, methodical, and discreet. He excelled in debating and expressed himself with precision. John harbored a deep love for music, even considering it as a potential career path.
John D. Rockefeller's upbringing and early life experiences laid the groundwork for his future as a business magnate, philanthropist, and one of the wealthiest individuals in modern history.
John D. Rockefeller: Early Career and the Formation of Standard Oil
Early Career and Bookkeeping Experience
At the age of sixteen, John D. Rockefeller began his career as an assistant bookkeeper at a small produce commission firm in Cleveland, Hewitt & Tuttle. He excelled in his role, demonstrating a keen aptitude for calculating transportation costs, which would later prove invaluable in his career. Rockefeller's persistence and negotiation skills helped him excel in his job and earned him regular pay raises.
Business Partnership and Civil War Service
In 1859, Rockefeller formed a produce commission business partnership with Maurice B. Clark. With the onset of the American Civil War, their business profited from the increased demand for food and supplies. As the war neared its end, they shifted their focus to the burgeoning oil industry. While Frank, Rockefeller's brother, served in the war, John tended to the business and supported the Union cause.
Transition to the Oil Industry
Rockefeller and his partners built an oil refinery in Cleveland's industrial area in 1863. They embraced innovation, using gasoline to fuel the refinery and selling by-products like lubricating oil, petroleum jelly, and paraffin wax. In 1865, Rockefeller bought out the Clark brothers and formed Rockefeller & Andrews, laying the foundation for his future success in the oil industry.
Expansion and Formation of Standard Oil
In 1866, John's brother William built another refinery, and by 1867, Henry M. Flagler joined the partnership, forming Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler. Through reinvestment of profits, cost control, and innovative refinery practices, the company became the largest oil refinery in the world by 1868. This marked the beginning of the renowned Standard Oil Company.
Standard Oil: Establishing Dominance in the Oil Industry
Founding and Early Expansion
Following the American Civil War, Cleveland emerged as one of the five main oil refining centers in the United States. By 1869, the kerosene refining capacity tripled the market demand, leading to a surplus that persisted for years.
On January 10, 1870, John D. Rockefeller, an American business magnate, dissolved the partnership of Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler and founded Standard Oil of Ohio. Through his work ethic and focus on efficiency, Rockefeller rapidly expanded the company, making it the most profitable refiner in Ohio and one of the largest oil and kerosene shippers in the nation. The railroads, fiercely competing for traffic, formed the South Improvement Company to create a cartel controlling freight rates. This cartel offered preferential treatment to high-volume shippers like Standard Oil, which included not only steep discounts and rebates for their products but also rebates for shipping competing products.
This arrangement led to a significant increase in freight charges, sparking protests from independent oil well owners and resulting in boycotts and vandalism. It was during these protests that Standard Oil's involvement in the cartel was exposed. Charles Pratt and Company, a major New York refiner, led the opposition, prompting railroads to retract their plans. Pennsylvania eventually revoked the cartel's charter, and non-preferential rates were temporarily restored. Despite the challenges, Rockefeller's strategies allowed American consumers to access cheaper kerosene and other oil by-products, making these products available to a wider range of the population.
Unfazed by the negative press, Rockefeller continued his self-reinforcing cycle of acquiring less efficient competitors, improving operational efficiency, securing discounts on oil shipments, undercutting rivals, and raising investment pools. In 1872, Standard Oil absorbed 22 out of its 26 Cleveland competitors in an event later known as "The Cleveland Conquest" or "The Cleveland Massacre". Recognizing the futility of competing against Standard Oil, even former opponents like Pratt and Rogers entered a secret agreement in 1874 to be acquired by Rockefeller.
Rockefeller saw himself as the industry's savior, "an angel of mercy," who strengthened and streamlined the industry by absorbing weaker competitors. Standard Oil grew horizontally and vertically, adding pipelines, tank cars, and home delivery networks. It kept oil prices low to deter competitors, making its products affordable to the average household and developing over 300 oil-based products. By the end of the 1870s, Standard was refining over 90% of the oil in the United States, and Rockefeller had become a millionaire.
In 1877, Standard clashed with Thomas A. Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, its primary hauler. Rockefeller pursued the construction and acquisition of pipelines as an alternative transport system for oil, prompting the railroad to form a subsidiary to buy and build oil refineries and pipelines. In response, Standard held back shipments and initiated a price war with the help of other railroads, ultimately forcing the Pennsylvania Railroad to sell its oil interests to Standard. This conflict led to several states indicting Rockefeller for monopolizing the oil trade, making Standard Oil's business practices a national issue. Despite the stress and anxiety during this period of consolidation and integration, Rockefeller remained steadfast in his pursuit of industry dominance.
The Rise and Fall of Standard Oil: John D. Rockefeller's Empire and the Antitrust Movement
Standard Oil's ascent to dominance in the US oil market, capturing approximately 90% of the market share, was facilitated through horizontal integration and the establishment of a vertical distribution system for kerosene. However, these business practices, which included underselling, differential pricing, and secret transportation rebates, ignited controversy and fueled the antitrust movement.
Investigations into the company revealed that Standard Oil was receiving significant freight rebates on oil transportation, ultimately crushing their competition. As a result, the company faced backlash from journalists, politicians, and the public. In response, Rockefeller's lawyers formed the Standard Oil Trust in 1882, an innovative corporation that centralized the company's holdings. Despite public suspicion, Standard Oil's wealth and influence continued to grow, making it one of the most formidable businesses in the world.
By the 1880s, the company's grip on the global oil market began to wane, with new oil finds and foreign competition threatening its dominance. In response, Rockefeller implemented innovative strategies, such as indirectly controlling crude oil prices by altering oil storage charges, and issuing certificates against oil stored in pipelines, creating the first oil-futures market.
However, the invention of the light bulb and the emergence of oil wells in Russia and Asia gradually weakened Standard Oil's stronghold on the kerosene market. The company adapted by expanding into European markets, natural gas production, and gasoline production for automobiles.
Despite these changes, Standard Oil's monopolistic practices did not go unnoticed. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 were established to regulate and challenge the company's power. The latter ultimately led to the dissolution of the Standard Oil trust, separating the Ohio branch from the rest of the company in 1892.
After a series of investigations and legal battles, the Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil Company of New Jersey had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered its breakup into 34 new companies. Although the breakup reduced Rockefeller's control over the industry, it increased his wealth significantly, as the net worth of the new companies combined rose fivefold.
The Rockefeller Era: Colorado Fuel and Iron's Financial Struggles and the Ludlow Massacre
In 1902, when John Cleveland Osgood faced cash flow problems, he sought a loan from George Jay Gould, a principal stockholder of the Denver and Rio Grande. Through Frederick Taylor Gates, John D. Rockefeller's financial adviser, Rockefeller became involved in financing the loan. An analysis conducted by John D. Rockefeller Jr. revealed the need for additional funds. In exchange for providing the necessary finances, Rockefeller and Gould acquired control over CF&I's subsidiaries, including the Colorado and Wyoming Railway Company, the Crystal River Railroad Company, and possibly the Rocky Mountain Coal and Iron Company. Control transitioned from the Iowa Group to Gould and Rockefeller interests in 1903, with Gould taking the lead while Rockefeller and Gates represented minority interests. Osgood left the company in 1904, focusing on competing coal and coke operations.
The 1913-14 Strike and the Infamous Ludlow Massacre
The United Mine Workers called for a strike in September 1913, fighting for union representation against coal mine operators in Huerfano and Las Animas counties of southern Colorado, where the majority of CF&I's coal and coke production was located. CF&I's president, Welborn, acted as the spokesman for the coal operators, with Rockefeller's operative, Lamont Montgomery Bowers, remaining in the background. Although few miners were union members or participated in the strike, most honored the call. Strikebreakers, or "scabs," were threatened and occasionally attacked. Both sides acquired arms and ammunition, and striking miners were forced to leave their company-owned homes and reside in union-established tent cities, such as Ludlow.
Under National Guard protection, some miners returned to work, and strikebreakers from eastern coalfields joined them. In February 1914, many troops were withdrawn, but a significant number remained in Ludlow. On April 20, 1914, a firefight erupted between strikers and troops, instigated by the troops and mine guards. The camp was burned, resulting in the death of 15 women and children who had sought shelter in tents. The incident brought national attention and criticism to Colorado.
An economic downturn and reduced coal demand led to the permanent closure of many CF&I coal mines, leaving numerous workers unemployed. In February 1915, the union discontinued strike benefits, causing widespread destitution in the coalfields. The Rockefeller Foundation funded relief programs organized by the Colorado Committee on Unemployment and Relief, which provided work for unemployed miners through road construction and other projects.
The Ludlow Massacre mobilized public opinion against the Rockefellers and the coal industry. The United States Commission on Industrial Relations conducted extensive hearings, focusing on John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his relationship with Bowers. Bowers was relieved of duty in 1915, and industrial relations improved under Welborn's leadership. Despite the evidence, Rockefeller denied responsibility and downplayed the severity of the event.
Family Origins and Ancestry
Contrary to long-standing speculations of French roots, genealogical research confirmed the German origin of the Rockefeller family, tracing them back to the early 17th century. Johann Peter Rockenfeller, born in 1682 in Rengsdorf, immigrated to North America in 1723 with three children and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The family name Rockenfeller is derived from the now-abandoned village of Rockenfeld in the district of Neuwied.
Marriage and Descendants
In 1864, John D. Rockefeller married Laura Celestia "Cettie" Spelman, daughter of Harvey Buell Spelman and Lucy Henry. They had four daughters and one son together. Rockefeller once said, "Her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice, I would be a poor man."
The Rockefeller wealth continued to fund family philanthropic, commercial, and political aspirations throughout the 20th century. Among his descendants, David Rockefeller became a leading New York banker, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller served as the 41st Vice President of the United States, and Winthrop Aldrich Rockefeller served as Governor of Arkansas. Other family members became prominent philanthropists, conservationists, and politicians.
Faith and Philanthropy
Raised in Richford, New York, in the Burned-over district, Rockefeller was influenced by the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening. His devout Baptist mother, Eliza, shaped his religious views and philanthropic endeavors. Rockefeller associated charity with the church and believed that making money was a "God-given gift."
As a devout Northern Baptist, Rockefeller read the Bible daily, attended prayer meetings, and led his own Bible study with his wife. He supported Baptist missionary activity, funded universities, and engaged in religious activities in Cleveland, Ohio. During his travels in the South, he generously donated to various Christian denominations, paid for the freedom of two slaves, and contributed to a Roman Catholic orphanage. As his wealth grew, so did his donations, particularly to his church in Cleveland.
Philanthropic Endeavors of John D. Rockefeller
Early Philanthropy and Support for Education
From his first job as a 16-year-old clerk, John D. Rockefeller was committed to charitable giving, initially donating six percent of his earnings. As his wealth increased, so did his philanthropy, focusing on church-related causes, education, public health, basic science, and the arts. Rockefeller was instrumental in the development of several academic institutions, providing significant funding for Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, which later became Spelman College, and contributing generously to Denison University and other Baptist colleges.
With an $80 million donation to the University of Chicago, Rockefeller transformed a small Baptist college into a world-class institution. He also supported the establishment of Central Philippine University, the first Baptist and second American university in Asia. The creation of Rockefeller's General Education Board in 1903 further demonstrated his commitment to promoting education at all levels throughout the United States.
Advancements in Medical Science and Public Health
Rockefeller's contributions to medical science were substantial. In 1901, he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, which later became Rockefeller University and boasts connections to 23 Nobel laureates. Additionally, Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in 1909, which played a crucial role in eradicating hookworm disease in the American South.
The Rockefeller Foundation, created in 1913, continued and expanded the work of the Sanitary Commission. With a $182 million endowment from Rockefeller, the foundation focused on public health, medical training, and the arts, contributing significantly to the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and the Peking Union Medical College in China.
Support for Social Studies and the Arts
Rockefeller's philanthropic activities also included the creation of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation in 1918, which supported work in the social studies before being absorbed into the Rockefeller Foundation. In total, Rockefeller donated approximately $530 million to various causes throughout his life.
Personal Acts of Giving and Support for Temperance
Rockefeller was well-known for giving dimes to adults and nickels to children wherever he went, sometimes playfully offering dimes to wealthy individuals like tire mogul Harvey Firestone. A supporter of the 18th Amendment, which banned alcohol in the United States, Rockefeller and his father donated $350,000 to various branches of the Anti-Saloon League. However, by 1932, he became disillusioned with the prohibition movement due to its inability to curb alcoholism and discourage drinking.
John D. Rockefeller's Winter Retreat: The Casements
Henry Flagler and the Ormond Hotel
Henry Morrison Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil alongside John D. Rockefeller, purchased the Ormond Hotel in Ormond Beach, Florida, in 1890. He expanded the hotel to accommodate 600 guests, turning it into one of the many Gilded Age hotels catering to passengers on Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway.
Rockefeller's Love for Ormond Beach
In 1914, John D. Rockefeller became a guest at the Ormond Hotel and was captivated by the beauty of Ormond Beach. After spending four seasons at the hotel, he decided to purchase an estate in the area known as The Casements.
The Casements: Rockefeller's Winter Home
The Casements served as Rockefeller's winter home during the later years of his life. After his heirs sold the property in 1939, the city of Ormond Beach acquired it in 1974. Today, The Casements functions as a cultural center and is the community's most renowned historical structure.
The Final Years and Legacy of John D. Rockefeller
Health Struggles in Later Life
In his 50s, Rockefeller experienced moderate depression and digestive issues. During a particularly stressful period in the 1890s, he developed alopecia, resulting in the loss of his body hair. By 1901, he started wearing toupées, and his mustache disappeared by 1902. While his hair never grew back, his other health concerns diminished as he reduced his workload.
Death and Burial
John D. Rockefeller passed away from arteriosclerosis on May 23, 1937, at "The Casements," his home in Ormond Beach, Florida. He was just shy of his 98th birthday. His final resting place is Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, where his legacy as a business magnate, philanthropist, and influential figure in American history endures.
John D. Rockefeller: A Complex Legacy in Business and Philanthropy
A Controversial Figure in the Oil Industry
John D. Rockefeller's career in the oil industry was long and controversial, as he both amassed a fortune and made significant philanthropic contributions. His image is a blend of various experiences and perceptions from his contemporaries, including competitors who experienced ruin or profited from their associations with Standard Oil, as well as politicians and writers who either supported or fought against him and the "robber barons."
Assessing Rockefeller's Business Acumen and Impact
Biographer Allan Nevins defended Rockefeller, stating that his wealth was amassed over a quarter of a century through courageous ventures, arduous labor, and strategic planning. Nevins argued that Rockefeller's wealth was not gained through appropriating the property of others, but by offering fair terms to competitors and buying them out with fair appraisals. Historians have noted that Rockefeller was more humane toward competitors than some of his contemporaries, such as Andrew Carnegie.
However, hostile critics often portrayed Rockefeller as ruthless, unscrupulous, and greedy, accusing him of using underhanded tactics to achieve dominance in the oil industry. Economic historian Robert Whaples cautions against overlooking the secrets of Rockefeller's business success, which included relentless cost-cutting, efficiency improvements, long-term industry investments, and an ability to recognize and reward talent while managing a growing empire.
A Contradictory Figure in History
Biographer Ron Chernow described Rockefeller as a problematic and contradictory figure, as his good side was equally as prominent as his bad side. Throughout history, Rockefeller has continued to inspire ambivalent reactions due to the complex nature of his legacy in both business and philanthropy.
The Unprecedented Wealth of John D. Rockefeller
A Staggering Fortune
John D. Rockefeller is primarily remembered for the sheer magnitude of his wealth. In 1902, an audit revealed that his net worth amounted to approximately $200 million, compared to the total national GDP of $24 billion at that time. His wealth continued to grow significantly, in tandem with the U.S. economic growth and the increasing demand for gasoline. By the eve of World War I, his fortune had reached around $900 million, including substantial interests in banking, shipping, mining, railroads, and other industries. Adjusted for inflation in 2020, his 1913 personal wealth of $900 million equates to $23.5 billion.
The Wealthiest Individual in Recent History
Upon his retirement, it was estimated that Rockefeller had accumulated close to $1.5 billion from Standard Oil earnings and other investments. This staggering sum was likely the largest amount of wealth a private citizen had ever managed to amass through their own efforts. By the time of his death in 1937, his remaining fortune, primarily held in permanent family trusts, was valued at $1.4 billion, while the total national GDP stood at $92 billion. Based on certain calculations of wealth, Rockefeller's net worth during the latter years of his life would easily position him as the wealthiest known person in recent history. In terms of the United States' GDP, no other American fortune, including those of Bill Gates or Sam Walton, comes close to matching Rockefeller's wealth.
Reflections on a Life of Success
At the age of 86, Rockefeller summarized his life with the following words:
"I was early taught to work as well as play,
My life has been one long, happy holiday;
Full of work and full of play—
I dropped the worry on the way—
And God was good to me every day."
Frequently Asked Questions
How did Rockefeller impact America?
John D. Rockefeller had a profound impact on America through his business endeavors, philanthropic efforts, and influence on the oil industry.
As a business magnate, Rockefeller co-founded Standard Oil, which played a pivotal role in shaping the American oil industry. Standard Oil's innovative practices, such as horizontal and vertical integration, allowed the company to dominate the market and achieve a near-monopoly status. This success led to the development of antitrust laws, including the Sherman Antitrust Act, which sought to regulate business practices and promote fair competition.
Rockefeller's wealth and influence extended beyond the oil industry. He held significant interests in various sectors, including banking, shipping, mining, railroads, and more. His business acumen and strategic investments contributed to America's economic growth during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
As a philanthropist, Rockefeller made considerable contributions to various causes, creating a lasting impact on American society. He established the Rockefeller Foundation, which focused on education, health, and scientific research. His philanthropic endeavors led to the founding of institutions such as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) and the General Education Board, which aimed to improve educational opportunities across the country.
Additionally, Rockefeller's philanthropy extended to public health through the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, which played a crucial role in eradicating hookworm disease in the southern United States. His support for the arts and culture was also notable, including patronage for artists like Diego Rivera and contributions to the establishment of cultural institutions.
In summary, John D. Rockefeller's impact on America was multifaceted, encompassing his role as an influential business magnate, a pioneering figure in the oil industry, and a generous philanthropist. His legacy continues to shape various aspects of American society, from industry practices and economic growth to education, healthcare, and cultural enrichment.
John Rockefeller Quotes
Here are some of John Rockefeller most famous quotes.
If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.
Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.
A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.
To see more John Rockefeller quotes, we recommend visiting the John Rockefeller Quote section in Quotes Analysis.
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