The Rockefeller name is synonymous with big business in the USA, and has been over a considerable period of time, ranking alongside Carnegie and perhaps Rothschild in wealth – the former also as a similarly self-made billionaire family, the latter also because of assumed similar Germanic roots. The rising force in the family was John D. Rockefeller in the second half of the 19th century, virtually monopolising the burgeoning oil industry in the US and worldwide at the time, and leaving a legacy taken up by his descendents over the last 100 years, and hence either envied, respected or feared because ‘money talks’, and therefore has influence.
The Rockefellers did indeed originate in what is now Germany, from Fahr in the Rhineland. Johann Peter migrated to the USA in 1723 and settled in New Jersey, soon after altering the surname spelling from Rockenfeller or Rockenfelder. The family were farmers, and remained so until John D.’s father William, who worked in various jobs such as lumberman, and selling so-called elixirs, and whose checkered career included bigamy, name changing, and frequent moves around the US and Canada. Clearly, he was no billionaire, and in fact John D. refused to recognise him at all for many years, as having brought shame to the family of the, later, richest man in the world.
John D. was born in 1839 – he studied bookkeeping and then accountancy, before selling produce and other foodstuffs, making sufficient money so that, with partner Maurice B. Clark, Samuel Andrews and Clark’s two brothers, in 1863 he was able to build an oil refinery, early on spotting the potential of the resource. John D. subsequently bought-out the Clarks, and when his brother William built another refinery, the company Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler was formed.
John D. was the businessman behind the venture – although he maintained that wife Laura was the real brain behind all business decisions – and steadily bought-up the oil-producing areas, built refineries as necessary, and controlled the methods of distribution, particularly the railways. In 1870, Standard Oil was formed, and by 1872 Rockefeller effectively had control of 90% of oil production, refining and distribution in the US, and actually in the world at that time. Despite anti-monopoly laws subsequently enacted by many US states, Rockefeller’s tough business dealings and his adaption of his operations legally circumvented these barriers. Kerosene was eventually replaced by gasoline, natural gas was marketed, and coal and iron ore mined – John D. was careful to maintain overall control of the companies and trusts.
Specifically, through maintaining an effective monopoly of the oil business, Rockefeller had now amassed a considerable fortune. At one time his wealth represented more than 1.5% of the US economy, around $25 billion, and he was the richest person not only in the US but in the top three in the world. His thoughts turned to retirement and philanthropy; despite his ruthless business methods, Rockefeller had always contributed to charities. In particular, he was at the forefront of medical research, and he founded or donated to as many as 70 educational institutions.
John D. Sr died in 1937, and his only son John D. Jr – known as Junior – assumed nominal control of the family fortune. Male members of the family have remained ostensibly in control of finances, although under the auspices of the 1934 Trust, and the 1952 Trust; all have been managed professionally. Junior’s particular divergent interest was to be in banking, as he had been given 10% of Equitable Trust Company stock by his father, which was subsequently subsumed into Chase National Bank, of which he was the largest shareholder, albeit at just 4% but it was the largest bank in the world at the time. Subsequent mergers with the Manhattan Company(1955) and then JP Morgan(2000) brought it to its current status as JP Morgan Chase, one of the four big banks in the US with assets in 2016 approaching $3 trillion.
Junior and the successive members of the family have inevitably been involved in real estate as well, principally in New York City and including housing developments as well as noted singular buildings, but Junior was actually always at least as interested in philanthropy as much as maintaining or expanding the family business. Continuation with support of education and medical research was complemented by involvement in many international institutions, often as part of or off-shoots of the League of Nations and then the United Nations – Junior even donated the land in New York City on which the United Nations building stands. There has also been a consistently heavy engagement in conservation, notably through either establishing or contributing to national parks around the US.
A further interesting recent development has been the declaration by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 2014, that it will divorce itself from all involvement in fossil fuels, in recognition of their (at least perceived) effect on climate change.
John D. Jr and wife Abby – daughter of Senator Aldridge – had a daughter and five sons. John D. 111 and his sister Abigail concentrated on philanthropy; John D. 111 sat on many boards, including the University of Chicago – which John D. Sr had established – what became Rockefeller University, International Education and China Medical Boards. He joined the family’s Rockefeller Foundation philanthropic organization in 1929, becoming chairman for twenty years, and was the first president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (1940-56).
Son David moved into banking as Chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan, expanding it internationally such that it now has over 50,000 branches and is a significant influence in banking around the world. He was President (1960-69), and then chairman and CEO (1969-80).
Laurance became a venture capitalist principally through Venrock Associates, which funded Apple and Intel and various other companies in the expanding technology sector. He was a founding trustee member of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund(1940-82), serving as president(1958–68) and then chairman (1968–80), and a founding trustee of the Rockefeller Family Fund, serving from 1967 to 1977. After World War 11, his interest in flying saw him fund what became the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation
Nelson is probably the best known son, as he was Governor of New York State from 1959-73, and then served as Vice-President of the US under President Gerald Ford from December 1974 to January 1977, following President Nixon’s resignation. He had previously been involved in positions of national affairs in health, education and welfare under presidents from Roosevelt to Eisenhower.
Winthrop became the first Republican Governor of Arkansas(1967-71) since the civil war. He had moved his family to the state in the early 1950s, and set up in farming
There is no doubt that the name Rockefeller still carries considerable weight and influence, both domestically and internationally, as the family has been involved in several major businesses, and in politics over more than 100 years. There are over 150 direct blood descendants of John D. Sr alive as of mid-2016, many still intimately involved in the variety of businesses already mentioned, as well as in influential political positions, plus maintaining the philanthropic activities for which the family has become justly respected, although some would say for less than altruistic reasons.
However, the family no longer holds a pre-eminent position in terms of net worth that it enjoyed at the time of John D. Sr’s passing. Estimates by authoritative sources put the family’s fortune at over $11 billion, ranking them in the low 20s of richest families in the USA in 2016. Of course, their continuing philanthropic activities means that the family is never likely to reach former heights of wealth established by the then richest person in the world, John D. Rockefeller Sr.