On 23 May 1937, John Davison Rockefeller Sr. died in Ormond Beach (Florida) at the age of 97. The businessman with German roots was the first billionaire of the world (in US-Dollars). If you consider not only inflation, but also his share of America’s economic strength, he was, according to Forbes, even the richest man in history. Until today, he is remembered for his ruthless business practices as well as his philanthropy.
The American Dream
John D. Rockefeller was born on 8 July 1839 in Richford (New York). His parents William Avery Rockefeller and Eliza Davison weren’t rich. His father was a travelling salesman who earned money with scams. He seems to have had affairs, problems with the law and later even a second wife under a false name. As he was often away, the mother had to work hard for the living of the family. She was a Baptist and raised her children true to Christian faith.
Rockefeller started early to earn some money by selling things to neighbors, providing services or even lending money. He was 16, when he left school and became a bookkeeper. At the age of 19, in 1859, he established a small trading company with Maurice Clark. Later they entered the oil business. Samuel Andrews became a partner. In 1865 there were differences of opinion and Rockefeller took over the business completely. He again made Samuel Andrews partner. In 1870, he founded Standard Oli Company together with his brother William, Samuel Andrews, Henry M. Flagler, S.V. Harkness and others.
Rockefeller was early involved in the oil business. Only with the patent registration of kerosene in 1855, it became a huge business. Rockefeller didn’t want to rely on finding oil; he saw more potential in processing it. The business was very profitable and Rockefeller further invested, therefore he even borrowed a lot of money. Competitors were systematically bought up, in part via third-party companies. At the peak, supposedly 90% of the American oil market was controlled. In 1882, the companies were combined in the Standard Oil Trust. The public became resistant and the legislature took measures by enacting antitrust laws. But only in 1911 the business complex was finally dismantled into over 30 individual companies. Successors of these companies are amongst others ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. Rockefeller retired already in 1896, but he was officially the president of the company until 1911. The dissection of his trust didn’t harm his wealth.
A ruthless philanthropist
Today, Rockefeller is remembered not only due to his wealth. In fact, he combined to quite different characteristics in his personality. On one hand, he is known for ruthless business practices: Competitors were urged to sell or ruined by improper means to achieve Monopoly.
On the other hand, he was a huge philanthropist that donated money for various purposes. He seems to have believed that he had to earn as much money as possible to give away as much as possible. The devout Baptist began early to donate part of his income. After he retired, he focused on supporting charitable purposes. He especially committed to education and medical advance. The benefactor Rockefeller was amongst others involved in the foundation of the University of Chicago, he also founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (today Rockefeller University) and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Rockefeller had five children with his wife Laura Celestia, née Spelman. One of them died as an infant. To just shortly mention some of the achievements of his descendants: His son John D. Rockefeller Jr. was responsible for the construction of the Rockefeller Center that is named after him. The son of Rockefeller Jr., Nelson A. Rockefeller, became vice president of the USA under Gerald Ford, his brother David Rockefeller played an important role at Chase National Bank.
The German ancestors
The oldest known of Rockefeller’s ancestors was Goddard (or Gotthart) Rockenfeller who was born in 1590 in Fahr am Rhein (now part of Neuwied) in today’s Rhineland-Palatinate. His grandson Johann Peter Rockenfeller emigrated from Germany to America in 1723. He settled with his wife and children in Germantown (Pennsylvania) and changed his name to Rockefeller. He was the great-great-grandfather of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
The last name probably comes from the village Rockenfeld that was located in the district of Neuwied until it was abandoned in the 1960s. In this region still many people live with the name Rockenfeller (or a variation of it).