Who Are the Rockefellers?
The Rockefeller family is comprised of a huge number of individuals, as the family spans generations that date back to the early 18th century. The most well-known Rockefeller family member is probably John D. Rockefeller, who made the family money alongside his brother William.
As well as the more well-known members of the family, there are a wealth of lesser-known Rockefellers. There are eccentric aunts, disappearing nephews, rebellious daughters, and ambitious financiers. Overall, the Rockefellers are an extremely wealthy and powerful American family.
From Germany to the USA
The Rockefeller family can be traced back to the Rhineland in Germany – in a town called Neuwied in Western Germany. Early Rockefellers moved to the New World in the early 18th century, as millions of Europeans did at that time, and in the decades after. It’s estimated that around 100,000 Germans migrated to the Americas between 1683-1783.
Johann Peter Rockefeller migrated from the Neuwied to Philadelphia in approximately 1723, and became a plantation owner and landholder in New Jersey.
Scots-Irish Farmers to Oil Tycoons
As well as their German ancestry, John D. Rockefeller and siblings are also descended from Scots-Irish farmers, through their mother Eliza. Also known as Elizabeth, she was born in the farming country between Owasco and Skaneateles lakes, in Cayuga County, New York. She was deeply religious, and attended a Dutch Reformed Church.
Eliza married businessman William Rockefeller Sr., who was born into a Protestant family in Granger, New York. Together, William – or Bill – and Eliza had six children, including John D., and William Jr.
Introducing Devious Devil Bill
William Rockefeller Sr. is an interesting character, and a rather unpleasant man. Known as “Devil Bill,” John D. Rockefeller’s father was a businessman and con-artist, who literally sold snake oil. Devil Bill also went by “Dr. William Levingston,” presumably so he could better sell his elixirs and potions. He referred to himself as a “botanic physician,” and also sold horses and loaned money.
Unsurprisingly, Devil Bill purposely loaned money to farmers that were unlikely to be able to pay him back. He could then take their farms.
I Want to Make ‘Em Sharp
Incredibly, one of Bill’s cons was to pretend to be deaf and dumb, which somehow won him his future wife. Bill arrived at the Davison residence, pulled out his slate and chalk to communicate, and Eliza remarked “If that man were not deaf and dumb, I’d marry him.” And so she did.
The couple had three sons and three daughters, named Lucy, John Davison, William Avery, Mary Ann, Franklin, and Francis. Bill bragged, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.”
Eliza, Nancy, and Margaret
Supposedly, Bill was in love with a woman named Nancy Brown before marrying Eliza, but chose Eliza because her father offered $500. Nancy worked as a housekeeper in the Rockefeller home, and Bill had two children with her, Clorinda and Cornelia.
William Sr. abandoned his family when his eldest three children were teenagers, but stayed legally married to Eliza. In 1856, under his Dr. William Livingston alias, he married a woman named Margaret Allen in Canada. They had no children together.
The Snake Oil Specialist Runs
At one point, William Rockefeller Sr was accused of assaulting Ann Vanderbeak, who worked in the Rockefeller home. In order to evade the law, Devil Bill sold the family home and moved. Eliza told authorities that Bill had “absconded and cannot now be found within the state.”
At this point, William transformed into Dr. Bill Livingston and took to the road as a traveling snake oil specialist. He was never punished for his crimes, and left the family penniless.
The Oil Tycoon Rockefeller Brothers
This picture, taken in the 1850s, shows John D. on the right, aged 13, William Jr. on the left, aged 11, and Mary Ann in the middle, aged 9. While many people understandably associate the Rockefeller family with New York, their company Standard Oil was actually founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1870. They moved to New York City over ten years later.
John D. formed Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler in 1867, and invited his brother William to take charge of exports, because of his skill in business.
Oil, Copper, and Railroads
Through his company, Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller came to control 90% of all oil in the USA. Before the introduction of electricity, oil was used as a light source, and, after the invention of the automobile, was used as a fuel.
John D. transformed the petroleum industry through various corporate and technological means. He was involved in copper mining and processing, and became interested in the newly expanded railway system. John D. became increasingly richer as oil became more important.
A Little Help from Vanderbilt
Here we have railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a deal with John D. in order to make them both more money. Basically, Vanderbilt would have exclusive rights to ship Rockefeller’s oil on his trains, and would offer a lower price.
However, this backfired somewhat because Standard Oil grew so quickly. Vanderbilt wanted to end the discounts, and Rockefeller ended up building his own pipeline. John D. gained huge influence over the railroad industry and went on to become the richest person in modern history.
America’s First Billionaire
In 1911 the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil must be dismantled because it was monopolizing the market. The company was divided into 34 entities, some of which became ExxonMobil, and Chevron Corporation. Luckily for John D. Rockefeller, the company was worth more in separate bits than it was as a whole, and shares started to double and triple in value.
Because of this, John D. Rockefeller became the USA’s first billionaire. At its peak, his net worth was estimated at $418 billion in today’s money.
The Wonderful Laura Spelman Rockefeller
When John D. Rockefeller was still in accounting classes, he met his future wife, Laura Celestia Spelman. Spelman was born in Ohio to Yankee parents, one of whom was descendent from the Puritans. Spelman’s father, Harvey Buell Spelman, was an abolitionist who was active in politics, the Congregationalist Church, and the Underground Railroad.
Spelman was against the practice of slavery and was part of the network of people that offered secret routes and safe houses for African-Americans.
Spelman Seminary and College
John D. and Laura Rockefeller were devout Christians, and believed in donating their wealth to charitable causes. As a child, John D. was told by a Baptist preacher to “make as much money as he could, and then give away as much as he could,” which had a profound influence on his life. The family donated 10% of their income to charity, including to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, a school for African-American women.
The school changed its name to Spelman College in honor of Laura Spelman and her parents.
Dogs and Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge
Of course, the Rockefellers aren’t all oil tycoons or snake oil salesmen. The youngest child of William Rockefeller Jr. and Almira Geraldine Goodsell was Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. Geraldine was a dog lover, and judged at shows in Europe, and in every American state. In fact, she was the first woman asked to judge at the Westminster Kennel Club.
Rockefeller Dodge wrote two books, both about dogs. One was entitled The English Cocker Spaniel in America, and the other The German Shepherd Dog in America.
Senior’s Retirement and Philanthropy
Let’s return to John D. Rockefeller, who was also known as “Senior” because of his son, known as “Junior.” We know that John D. was a religious man, and that he believed that making money and giving money away were intrinsically linked. As well as revolutionizing the petroleum industry, John D. also helped to define modern philanthropy.
In 1889, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie called on the country’s millionaires to distribute their wealth for public good. Rockefeller did this by creating influential foundations.
Rockefeller Helped Eradicate Hookworm
John D. Rockefeller established foundations for the arts, medical research, education, and public health. In 1909 he founded the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, which went on to almost completely eradicate hookworm in the US.
In the early 20th century, this parasite infected over 40% of Southerners, but now is only found in small areas of the Deep South. The foundation mapped high-risk areas and treated infected people. This image shows a dispensary for a free treatment of hookworm. It was taken around 1912.
A Bag of Fresh Dimes
In his later life, John D. Rockefeller started to give a dime to every adult he met, and a nickel to every child. At the time, a dime was worth approximately $5, and estimates suggest that Rockefeller gave away around $35,000 in dimes during his life.
Taking into consideration his philanthropy, it is estimated that John D. Rockefeller donated around $550 million throughout his life. According to his personal ledger, Rockefeller started early, donating 6% of his earnings from his first job, aged 16.
John D. Rockefeller had Alopecia
John D. Rockefeller experienced several illnesses during his life, including depression and digestive problems, probably brought on by stress. During a particularly stressful period in the 1890s, Rockefeller developed alopecia, which is an immune condition that causes hair loss. While still in his 40s, the industrialist lost all his head and body hair.
Rockefeller’s ailments improved as he worked less, but his hair never grew back. He started wearing toupees in 1901, including hairpieces of different lengths so it looked like he was getting haircuts.
Senior Outlived his Life Insurance
John D. Rockefeller lived to an old age, dying two months before his 98th birthday. He had taken out a life insurance policy and actually outlived its terms. The insurance company had to pay him $5 million.
Throughout his career, John D. Sr. was accused of donating to charity in order to avoid paying taxes. However, biographers argue that his religious beliefs were the most likely reason for his charitable giving. At 20 years old, Rockefeller was donating over 10% of his salary, mainly to church-related causes.
The Rockefellers and Prohibition
Likewise, some conspiracists think that John D. Rockefeller Snr funded Prohibition in the US in order to remove ethanol as an automotive fuel. However, it was again his religious beliefs that propelled him to help establish Prohibition in the US.
Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman (pictured), was a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. Her husband donated millions of dollars to the organization, which helped them to lobby congress. Furthermore, industrialists believed it would lead to improved performance from employees.
The Eccentric Edith Rockefeller McCormick
John D. Rockefeller and Laura Spelman had five children – daughters Elizabeth, Alice, Alta, and Edith, and only son John Jr. Edith had a turbulent relationship with her father, particularly because of his austerity and her extravagance. Edith Rockefeller didn’t attend finishing school, which was unusual for women of her time.
Edith went on to become a successful Jungian psychoanalyst and also studied astrology and reincarnation. In 1923, she even claimed to be the reincarnation of King Tutankhamen.
A Rockefeller Rebel
John D. Snr specifically raised his children with a strict religious and moral code so that they wouldn’t be tempted by the opportunities that come with enormous wealth. After marrying Harold McCormick, Edith moved to Chicago and started to spend her money freely. Edith was a passionate reader, learned to play the cello, and could speak multiple languages.
Edith became a prominent socialite, but the rift with her frugal father only grew. John Sr couldn’t stand his daughter’s lifestyle, and she found her father too judgmental.
Along Comes Junior
Edith Rockefeller was also annoyed that her younger brother – known as Junior – was heir to a disproportionate amount of the family fortune. When Jr attended Brown University, it was noted that he was much more careful with money than the sons of other rich men.
Jr. became a director of Standard Oil, and was involved with philanthropy. In 1913 a worker’s strike from a Rockefeller owned business led to evictions and fatalities, bringing John Jr. in front of Congress.
The Mystery of the Money
While the exact wealth of the Rockefellers is still unknown, World Finance estimates that their net-worth today is $11 billion. The family records are in archives that are sealed to researchers. However, we do know that the Rockefeller men have always had complete financial control of the family fortune.
John Jr’s wife Abigail Greene Aldrich Rockefeller – or Abby – was a strong-willed and influential woman, but had no financial power. Her and other Rockefeller women received allowances from their husbands.
The Activities of Abby Aldrich
Abby grew up in a prominent family, as her father was Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich. She traveled extensively, loved social events, and was an art lover. Husband John Jr. was a fan of medieval art, whereas Abby favored modern art. She collected works from Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and eventually co-founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).
Aldrich worked with the public, corporations, and prominent New-Yorkers to finance the museum, because her husband found modern art distasteful.
The Rockefellers in Politics
As well as dominating the oil industry, and later the banking industry, the Rockefeller family have also held high political office. As recently as 2015, Jay Rockefeller was the US Senator from West Virginia, and in 2006, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller was the vice-Governor of Arkansas.
Prior to that, his father, Winthrop Rockefeller (son of John D. and Abbey) was the Governor of Arkansas. Nelson Rockefeller was the Vice-President from 1974-1977.
Nelson Rockefeller’s Affair Revealed
Nelson Rockefeller passed away in 1979, and early reports stated that the politician was found dead at his desk. However, it was later confirmed that Rockefeller was having an affair with a 25-year-old aide, and had died while with her at ahis townhouse.
Nelson was married twice – once to Mary Todhunter Clark – and once to Margaretta Large “Happy” Fitler (pictured). With Mary, he had five children – Rodman, Ann, Steven, Michael, and Mary. With Happy, he had Nelson, and Mark.
The Untimely Demise of Michael
Tragically, Nelson Rockefeller’s fifth son Michael traveled to New Guinea in 1961, and never returned home. Michael was a 23-year-old photographer and wanted to bring indigenous art back to New York. Officially, Michael’s death was recorded as by drowning, however, there are other theories.
Supposedly, a Dutch priest spoke with the men from the nearby Otsianep tribe, and they admitted that they discarded a man who matched Rockefeller’s description.
The Tragic Story of Winifred
The Rockefellers have seen various tragedies, including the passing of Winifred Rockefeller. John D. Sr’s brother and Standard Oil co-founder William Avery Rockefeller Jr. had six children – Lewis Edward, Emma, William Goodsell, John Davison, Percy Avery, and Ethel Geraldine.
Percy had four children – Isabel, Avery, Winifred, Faith, and Gladys. In 1950, Winifred was sent to a sanatorium, and one year later she took her and her daughter’s lives. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and were found by the maid.
The Next Rockefeller Patriarch
John D. Rockefeller Snr passed away in 1937, at the age of 97. His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. passed away in 1960, aged 86. The next Rockefeller patriarch was David Rockefeller, the youngest child of Junior and Abby Aldrich. David was the chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Corporation, and lived to 101 years old, making him the world’s oldest billionaire.
David Rockefeller enlisted in the US Army in 1943, and served in North Africa and France.
David Rockefeller’s Political Connections
David Rockefeller had widespread political connections and met with a variety of world leaders. The President of the United States offered Rockefeller the position of Treasury secretary twice, but the banker turned it down.
Rockefeller has been criticized for his relationships with certain world leaders, with detractors arguing that he favored his own financial interests. Rockefeller is pictured here alongside politician Henry Kissinger. The pair met while working in a group on nuclear weapons.
Keeping the Family Together
Unlike other wealthy American families, the Rockefellers have been able to maintain significant unity over the generations. John D. Rockefeller Jr. went to great efforts to rehabilitate the family name after the hard-nosed practices of Standard Oil and its associated entities. The family have always prized unity, and held regular brothers and family meetings.
Other Rockefeller family members that have highly valued family unity were politician Nelson Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller III (eldest son of Junior), and banker David Rockefeller.
Philanthropy and Powerful Connections
We know that John D. Rockefeller Snr gave away around $550 million (in today’s money) over his lifetime, and had a huge impact on medical research. Junior gave away approximately $537 million during his life, which means together they donated over $1 billion within 100 years. According to The New York Times, David Rockefeller donated around $900 million.
Through these enormous donations, the Rockefeller family have impacted the United States in far-reaching ways. For example, John Jr. and Nelson donated the land for the UN headquarters in NYC (pictured).
Rockefeller Influence Around the World
In this image, we see the Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem, which was funded by John D. Rockefeller Junior. After World War II, Junior contributed to the restoration of major buildings in France, including the Palace of Versailles, the Fontainebleau Palace, and the Rheims Cathedral.
Additionally, Junior funded excavations in Egypt, and founded schools and universities in Europe and Asia. He was also a conservationist and purchased and donated land for a range of American National Parks, including Yosemite and Shenandoah.
Guess Who Nearly Wrote the Book
Whilst Sir Winston Churchill is now known as a wartime Prime Minister of the UK, he also had an illustrious career as a writer. In total, he wrote two biographies, three volumes of memoirs, a novel, some histories, and many press articles. The British-American even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Interestingly, in the 1930s, the Rockefellers asked Churchill to write the biography of John D. Snr. He requested a $250,000 advance, which even the wealthy Rockefellers wouldn’t pay.
A Crockefeller Tried to Infiltrate
In a sinister twist that actually pays homage to old Devil Bill, a German man named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter once used the Rockefeller name to enter New York high society. Going by the name, “Clark Rockefeller,” the imposter attended high-profile events, got jobs, and married a rich wife. When his wife – Sandra Boss – started to investigate her husband’s background, she discovered that he had invented his family background.
In 2013, Gerhartsreiter was convicted of a 1985 murder, and is serving a life sentence in California.
Rockefeller Real Estate
Of course, when most people hear the name Rockefeller, they think of the Rockefeller Center in New York City (pictured). The Rockefellers financed the building, which was built in Manhattan at the start of the Depression. The wealthy family were involved in multiple real estate projects during the 20th Century, including the Lincoln Center, and the World Trade Center.
We know that Abby Aldrich co-founded the Museum of Modern Art, and her husband John D. Jr founded The Cloisters, a museum specializing in European medieval art.
Historic Rockefeller Residences
As well as purchasing and donating real estate, the Rockefeller family have a range of historic residences. In total, 81 Rockefeller residences can be found on the National Register of Historic Places. In this picture, we can see 10 West 54th Street, where John D Jr raised his five children, including future Vice-President Nelson.
The home had nine-stories, and was the largest residence in NYC at the time. Junior later donated the residence to the Museum of Modern Art.
An Enormous Moral Responsibility
Starting with John D. Sr, the Rockefellers have been hugely involved in land conservation. This might sound strange, considering the family initially made their money from oil. In fact, fifth-generation descendants of John D. Sr have now taken on major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, a successor to Standard Oil.
The Rockefellers have accused ExxonMobil of knowing more about climate change than they disclosed. Valerie Rockefeller Wayne commented, “Because the source of the family wealth is fossil fuels, we feel an enormous moral responsibility.”
The Next Generation of Rockefellers
In 2016, grandson of John D. Sr. and president of the Rockefeller Family Fund, David Kaiser (pictured), called ExonnMobil “morally bankrupt.” In 2020, three fifth-generation Rockefellers – Daniel Growald, Peter Gill Case, and Valerie Rockefeller – wrote an article for The New York Times arguing that major banks must stop financing fossil fuels.
As of 2017, the number of heirs to the Rockefeller fortune is 174. It seems like this family will continue to create their legacy for generations to come.