Detailed Findings & Methodology:
John D. Rockefeller is one of the most successful businessmen of all time. He established a standard for the quality of oil and strived to run his company, Standard Oil, at peak efficiency. It’s possible that Rockefeller was the first billionaire in the U.S., but he certainly was the wealthiest American ever. His fortune has been estimated to be about one/sixty-fifth of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Reviewing the industries that these business magnates dominated to obtain their wealth can be an interesting way to map the trajectory of the U.S. economy over time.
Many of the richest Americans of all time, like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, made their fortunes at a time when the U.S. was expanding rapidly and building up its infrastructure. During the second half of the 19th century Rockefeller’s oil and Carnegie’s steel fed America’s voracious appetite to expand. But many Americans also resented the success of the top 1%, branding them as “robber barons” and claiming their fortunes were made on the backs of their employees.
Today a new class of mega-billionaire has made its money through the internet and related technologies. Jeff Bezos is worth more than $100 billion thanks to his e-commerce giant, Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook — the most popular social media site in the U.S. — and became a self-made billionaire at age 23. He is youngest person to ever do so.
Many entrants on this list have lived the immigrant’s version of the American dream after leaving their home countries in search of opportunity. John Jacob Astor moved to the U.S. from Germany and opened a successful fur-trading company. He used those profits to create a vast New York City real estate empire.
Sergey Brin and his family were persecuted in the Soviet Union because of their Jewish ancestry. They fled the country and relocated to Maryland. Later Brin and Michigan-born Larry Page teamed up to create Google, now the internet’s largest search engine.
Most of the people on this list, however, were born in the U.S., and a large share of these were born in New York State. Storied tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt hail from the Empire State, as do newer billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg.
Many of the billionaires on list are used as case studies to support the validity of the American Dream. The stories of Sam Walton, Marshall Field, and John D. Rockefeller are often told and retold as proof that any person willing to work hard can acquire wealth. But skeptics will argue that the people on this list were either extraordinarily lucky — finding themselves at just the right place at the right time — or that had certain advantages that put them in a position to succeed. Jim Walton made this list largely because of his massive inheritance from his father, who founded Walmart. Stephen Van Rensselaer inherited just about all of the land he used to make his fortune, which today would be valued at more than $100 billion.