With its strong tradition of individualism and free-market competition, the U.S has produced some of the richest individuals in history. Not surprisingly, almost all of the personalities listed in the article acquired most of their fortune during the eras of rapid technological change, tapping into new emerging markets. Here are the top ten richest Americans in history with their net worth listed at their peak. Save for only one on the list, all became rich through their own efforts.
All figures have been adjusted to inflation in 2019 US dollars.
10. Alexander T. Stewart (1803-1876)
Net worth: $103 bn
Source of wealth: Retail
Birthplace: Lisburn, Ireland
Before there was Sam Walton, there was Alexander Stewart. After inheriting his share from grandfather’s fortune, the business savvy Irish moved to New York to start a business in retail. From one small store that sold Irish fabrics, his business quickly expanded thanks to his competitive prices and honest business practices. In 1948, he opened the Marble Palace, then the largest retail store in the world and helped make him of the wealthiest man in the city. By the time of his death, he owned stores located on both sides of the Atlantic and his business has expanded to mail order and manufacturing.
9. Stephen Girard (1750–1831)
Net worth: $141 bn
Source of wealth: Banking
Birthplace: Bordeaux, France
Credited with personally saving the United States government from financial collapse during the war of 1812, he first began his career as a ship captain before settling as a merchant in Philadelphia. When an epidemic engulfed the city, unlike many wealthy citizens, he chose to stay behind to help the sick and dying.
He fortunes took off when he decided to invest in the growing banking industry, starting his own private bank as well as purchasing the majority shares in the First and Second Bank of America. Dying childless, he willed nearly his entire amassed wealth to charity, particularly education and the welfare of orphans.
8. Bill Gates (1955 – Present)
Net worth: $150 bn
Source of wealth: IT & Electronics
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
Together with his friend, Paul Allen, Bill Gates launched Microsoft at just the age of 20. The company quickly grew to become the largest PC software company in not just the country but the entire world, taking full advantage of the PC revolution. From 1995 to 2017, he held the Forbes title of the richest person in the world all but four of those years. Adjusted to inflation, his wealth peaked at $150 billion in 1999 but since has dropped thanks to his extensive philanthropic efforts. He runs the largest private charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is credited with aiding global efforts in eradicating diseases and improving health access.
7. Jeff Bezos (1964 – Present)
Net worth: $154 bn
Source of wealth: IT Services
Birthplace: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Owner of the online retail giant, Amazon, Bezos originally worked at Wall Streets for a number of firms before moving to Seattle to start his own company, using his garage as his first makeshift office. Initially selling books, he expanded to sales of music, videos and consumer goods. Aggressively buying out smaller competitors, he acquired a near monopoly in online retail. Bezos’ business has since expanded into space technology, online publishing and venture capital. Currently, his net worth makes him the richest man in America today.
6. John Jacob Astor (1763–1848)
Net worth: $162 bn
Source of wealth: Trade & Real Estate
Birthplace: Walldorf, Holy Roman Empire
John Jacob Astor worked at his father’s butcher shop before moving to London to work for his uncle and then finally moving to New York City. After working some time for his brother, he got in the lucrative fur trade industry, purchasing them from natives and selling them in cities at great profits. By 1800, he has quickly established himself as among the leading fur traders. He expanded his business to import/export trade and especially benefited from the vast markets in China.
Sensing the potential growth of real estate value in New York City, he retired from his trading ventures and bought off vast tracts of land in Manhattan. He spent his later years as a patron of arts and culture.
5. Henry Ford (1863–1947)
Net worth: $220 bn
Source of wealth: Auto Industry
Birthplace: Greenfield Township, Michigan
Instrumental in the development of the assembly line method in production, Henry Ford made his fortune by manufacturing and selling the first automobiles that were affordable to the middle-class. Thus, he singlehandedly transformed motorized transport from an expensive luxury to a vehicle of convenience. Ford was from a humble background, born to a family of farmers. He worked as an engineer for Edison’s company before eventually resigning to start his own, which quickly failed. Undeterred, he raised investment to start a new company that would later be named the Ford Motor Company. Ford would go on to sell millions of his mass-produced cars and change the transport landscape of America permanently.
Despite aiming for higher efficiency and cutting costs, Ford was a strong supporter of welfare capitalism, offering double the rate in wages to his workers to that of the competition and introducing 5 days, 40-hour workweek and hired blacks, women and the disabled at the time when such practices were rare. Despite this, Ford was also deeply anti-Semitic, sponsoring newspapers that published strongly anti-Jewish materials. According to historian Steven Watts, Ford was one of the few prominent Americans deeply admired by Hitler and was described by Heinrich Himmler as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters”.
4. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877)
Net worth: $225 bn
Source of wealth: Shipping & Railroads
Birthplace: Staten Island, New York
A contemporary of Stewart and Astor, Vanderbilt built his fortune through investment in the shipping and railroad industry. Highly intelligent and competitive, he is credited with establishing the foundation of the American corporate economy. He started his career working for a fellow entrepreneur named Gibbons as his business manager while simultaneously running his own small ferry operations on the side. Eventually, by 1829, he left Gibbons’ company and devoted full time to his own work. By the end of the 1830s, he expanded his business into the railroad industry, aggressively buying out competitors operating on the most frequented lines. Sensing opportunity in the California gold rush, Vanderbilt switched from regional steamboat lines to ocean-going steamships operating from the US to Central America and later expanded to transatlantic voyages as well. Upon his death, he was the richest man in the world.
3. William H. Vanderbilt (1821–1885)
Net worth: $280 bn
Source of wealth: Railroads
Birthplace: New Brunswick, New Jersey
The eldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Willian Henry Vanderbilt proved to be just as shrewd as his father. He inherited his father’s railroad business and greatly expanded its operations, earning the moniker, ‘The Colossus of (Rail) Roads’. By the time he died, just nine years later after his inheritance, he had nearly his personal fortune.
2. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919)
Networth: $364 bn
Source of wealth: Steel & Oil
Birthplace: Dunfermline, Scotland
A true story of rag to riches, Andrew Carnegie’s personal story is nothing short of inspiring. Carnegie was born to a poor Scottish family struggling to make ends meets. Deciding to try their fortune in America, they borrowed money and migrated to Pennsylvania. The young Andrew Carnegie worked as a child laborer in a textile mill and later as a telegraph messenger for a post office. The work was highly strenuous but helped the young Carnegie make many connections in the business world. Eventually, he was offered the position of Superintendent in a railroad company and later earned himself the attention of the company’s owner, Thomas A. Scott, who would become his mentor.
Through Scott, he was able to secure his first investment and slowly accumulated capital by reinvesting his returns. Capitalizing on the growth of the railroad industry and making use of his connections, Carnegie quickly amassed a fortune by investing in steel and oil production, gaining a near monopoly in the former, and thus, becoming the second richest man in modern history. During his later years, he engaged in extensive philanthropy, donating nearly 90 percent of his entire wealth to charity. He never married during his mother’s lifetime, instead choosing to look after her as her health declined. Carnegie was extremely fond of books and is said to have established nearly 3000 public libraries in the US and rest of the globe for the poor to access.
1. John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937)
Net worth: $394 bn
Source of wealth: Oil
Birthplace: Richford, New York
Like Carnegie, Rockefeller came from a very humble background and started work at a young age. He landed his first job as an assistant book-keeper and later, securing funds, started his own business in the produce market with his partner, Maurice B. Clark. Their venture was a success as the outbreak of the Civil War led to a huge demand for food and supplies, from which they greatly profited. After the war, Rockefeller and his partner eyed on the booming business of oil extraction. Unlike their competition, which were highly wasteful in extraction, Rockefeller made his operations as efficient as possible, utilizing and selling every by-product from his refineries and pursuing vertical integration to cut costs of production. Eventually, Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and aggressively bought out his competitions until he gained an almost complete monopoly in the country’s vast oil market, making him one of the richest men in America.
In 1909, deeming his business in violation of the Anti-Trust Act, the Supreme Court order the break-up of his oil company into 32 new ones. This, however, proved to be immensely beneficial to Rockefeller in the following years as the value of shares of each individual company rose several folds, greatly expanding Rockefeller’s already impressive net worth. Rockefeller spent the last four decades of his life absorbing himself in philanthropy, with his charities instrumental in the near-eradication of hook-worm and yellow fever in the country as well as pioneering development in medical research.
Recommended book: Titan – The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.