Special Report

The Richest Americans of All Time

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5. Elon Musk (1971-present)
> 2021 estimated net worth: $168.9 billion

Elon Musk was born in South Africa, before moving to Canada at 17, then to the U.S. to study at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. Musk first became a millionaire by selling the online city guide company he co-founded with his brother, Zip2, in 1999. He became a billionaire in 2002, when eBay acquired another one of the companies he co-founded, PayPal.

The bulk of Musk’s net worth stems from his more recent ventures, notably his electric carmaker Tesla Motors and rocket company SpaceX. Elon Musk’s net worth has skyrocketed over the past year, up from $24.6 billion in April 2020 to $168.9 billion in April 2021.

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4. Sam Walton (1918-1992)
> 2021 estimated net worth: $181.8 billion

Sam Walton is one of the most successful businessmen of all time, taking Walmart from a small discount store in Arkansas into the largest retailer in the world. Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. By 1970, the company went public. As the store’s footprint grew, so did Walton’s wealth, and by 1985, he was the richest man in America.

Sam Walton’s heirs have held onto about half of Walmart’s stock, netting them a combined net worth exceeding $200 billion and making the Waltons the richest family in America.

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3. Jeff Bezos (1964-present)
> 2021 estimated net worth: $188.5 billion

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos ranks as the richest person in the world and the third richest American of all time, with a net worth of $188.5 billion as of April 2021. The company, which started as an online book seller in 1994, has become the dominant force in e-commerce. Amazon has also diversified successfully into a web service provider and a streaming entertainment service. Bezos announced he would step down as Amazon CEO in late 2021.

In late 2019, Bezos had a net worth of $114 billion, but with deliveries spiking amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon became even more valuable, and his net worth grew by over 50%. In addition to Amazon, Bezos owns the Washington Post and a rocket called Blue Origin.

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2. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
> 2021 estimated net worth: $221.0 billion

Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of just two Americans who amassed a fortune that added up to over $200 billion in 2021 dollars. He first made his fortune ferrying goods on the rivers surrounding New York City, working his way up from steamship captain to building ships and operating ferry routes. He developed a reputation as a ruthless businessman, undercutting and intimidating competitors.

Vanderbilt became extravagantly wealthy by launching the fastest steamship route from New York to California during the middle of the 19th century, capitalizing on the many people heading west to search for gold. He later helped establish the transcontinental railroad industry, which helped to make him one of the wealthiest people in history.

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1. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
> 2021 estimated net worth: $272.7 billion

John D. Rockefeller was the first American billionaire, and to this day, he is by far the wealthiest American of all time. Rockefeller began his business career as a merchant, dealing in goods like meats and grains. Though his business was successful, he soon turned his attention to the oil industry, sensing an opportunity for greater wealth. In 1870, he and his business partners founded one of the most successful companies in American history, Standard Oil.

Rockefeller pioneered concepts like vertical integration. By controlling many facets of the supply chain of his oil business, he could keep costs low and margins high. He also figured out a way to standardize the quality of oil, which had been poor up to that point. A decade after its founding, Standard Oil controlled over 90% of all oil production in America. The Supreme Court eventually broke up Standard Oil in 1911, citing antitrust laws, but by then Rockefeller had become America’s first billionaire and amassed a fortune worth $272.7 billion in 2021 dollars.