Special Report

30 Richest Americans of All Time

Source: John Wesley Jarvis / National Portrait Gallery

5. John Jacob Astor (1763-1848)
> 2022 estimated net worth: $159.1 billion

John Jacob Astor became one of the first people to live out the American Dream, working his way up from being a poor German immigrant to real estate mogul whose net worth amounted to nearly $160 billion in 2021 dollars.

Astor married into a wealthy family in 1785 and used his wife’s money to launch his empire. A year after marrying, he began his business, which became the nation’s largest fur company by 1800. Astor exported furs to China, and imported silk and tea. In the 1830s, he sold his fur businesses and focused on real estate holdings in New York City, like hotels and residences. These high-price properties made him the richest man in America by the time of his death in 1848.

4. Sam Walton (1918-1992)
> 2022 estimated net worth: $194.6 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.

Source: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

3. Elon Musk (1971-present)
> 2022 estimated net worth: $207.0 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 continued to raise his profile and his net worth 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 two years, from $24.6 billion in April 2020 to over $200 billion in 2022. As of May 2022, Musk was in the process of acquiring Twitter, but has since said he wants to lower the initially-agreed-upon price of $44 billion.

Source: United States Library of Congress

2. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
> 2022 estimated net worth: $236.4 billion

Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of just two Americans who amassed a fortune that was worth over $236 billion in 2022 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 shifted focus to the nascent transcontinental railroad industry, which helped to make him one of the wealthiest people in history.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
> 2022 estimated net worth: $291.8 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 $291.8 billion in 2022 dollars.

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