John D. Rockefeller: History, Standard Oil, Achievements & Facts

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), one of the richest men in the history of the United States, was the famous business magnate who founded the Standard Oil Company.

By his mid-20s, Rockefeller, who by the way hailed from a moderately affluent background, had begun making investments in the oil industry in Cleveland, Ohio. Less than a decade later, the Richford, New York-born businessman had gone on to build for himself Standard Oil, a titan in the oil industry in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century.

In the last couple of decades leading to the 20th century, almost 90 percent of all the oil refineries and pipelines were under the control of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. This was a palpable testimony to just how influential John D. Rockefeller was in the American industrial landscape.

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller biography and achievements | Image: John D. Rockefeller in 1885

Quick Facts about John D. Rockefeller

Born: John Davison Rockefeller

Birthday: July 8, 1939

Place of birth: Richford, New York, United States

Died: May 23, 1937

Place of death: Ormond Beach, Florida, United States

Aged: 97

Father: William Avery Rockefeller

Mother: Eliza Davison

Sibling: William Rockefeller

Wife: Laura Spelman (married in 1864)

Children: Elizabeth (1866-1906), Alta (1871-1962), Edith (1872-1932), John (1874-1960), Alice

Most known for: Building a multi-billion dollar oil empire; the first American billionaire

Business Empire: the Standard Oil Trust

Net worth: tens of billions of dollars


Born John Davison Rockefeller on July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York, Rockefeller grew up in a middle class American family. His father, William Avery Rockefeller, was a traveling salesman.

Right from an early age, Rockefeller was quite good at making money as he took to raring turkeys, opening up a small table-top candy shop and running errands for his neighbors in exchange for money.

In his mid-teens, he and his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. The young Rockefeller enrolled at a local high school before proceeding to study bookkeeping at college.

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller’s birthplace in Richford, New York, United States

The teenager at one point worked as an office clerk at the Cleveland commission, an organization that traded in many commodities, including coal and grains.

After three years working in the commission, Rockefeller partnered with a friend to start up their own business.

Inspired by the firs oil wells that sprang up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Rockefeller and his business partners quickly moved into (in 1863) the oil industry as they were hoping to reaping the benefits of an early entry.

Rockefeller’s wife and children

At the age of 25, Rockefeller tied the knot with Laura Celestia Spelman, the daughter of a very wealthy Ohio-based businessman, abolitionist and politician. Together with Laura, Rockefeller had five children: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Elizabeth Rockefeller Strong, Alta Rockefeller Prentice, and Alice Rockefeller. The last child, Alice, died about a year after her birth.

John D. Rockefeller’s business

John D. Rockefeller made a huge amount of money from his investments in the oil industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century. By so doing, he became the richest oil tycoon in America. | Image: John D. Rockefeller 1917 painting

About two years into his partnership, in 1865, Rockefeller used borrowed money to take full control of his business. The business at the time was considered the largest oil company in Cleveland, Ohio.

Desiring to grow the business, John D. Rockefeller introduced new partners and investors into his business. As a result, the business saw tremendous growth due to the fact that it had expanded into other areas of the oil industry.

How Rockefeller made his money

Acting as the majority shareholder of the Standard Oil (formed in 1870), Rockefeller and his younger brother/business partner William Rockefeller, helped steer the company to great heights. In the decades that followed, Standard Oil had attained regional dominance and gone on to monopolize the entire oil industry in the U.S. The company consolidated its power by buying out rival companies and their refineries. It also moved into setting up various companies in the downstream supply chain, including distribution and marketing companies.

The Rockefeller empire, i.e. the Stand Oil Trust, was born, and it was underpinned by oil, one of the fastest growing commodities in the U.S. at the time. Rockefeller quickly became one of the richest men in the U.S. by taking advantage of every opportunity in the industry. He even had his own scientists that worked diligently to monetize the by-products from the oil.

However, all that wealth came with its drawbacks as the business magnate was constantly on the receiving end of criticisms from journalists and liberal progressive politicians on Capitol Hill. The Ohio-based oil tycoon was accused of using unethical business practices and colluding with top business executives to eliminate every form of competition in the industry.

Rockefeller was portrayed as the epitome of corporate greed in a nation that was entering into the 20th century as the undisputed superpower, militarily and economically.

Just how rich was Rockefeller?

John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller and his associates turned Standard Oil into an behemoth in the American industry, albeit sharp criticisms from the progressive liberals for his tendency to decimate competition in the industry in order to become a monopoly | Image: Standard Oil Refinery No. 1 in Cleveland, Ohio, 1897

It was so typical of the Gilded Age, the tumultuous decades between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century that saw tremendous industrial growth and profits at the expense of the average American families. Majority of Rockefeller’s wealth came in that period, which was characterized by corrupt business tycoons, financiers, bankers and politicians. Chief among those groups of elite businessmen and powerful Americans was John D. Rockefeller.

A 1902 audit report stated that John D. Rockefeller’s net worth was in the region of $200 million dollars. To put into perspective, the nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) at the time was around $24 billion.

John D. Rockefeller did not stop there; his wealth continued to balloon to reach almost $1 billion dollars (about $24 billion in today’s dollar) around the First World War. At the time of his death in 1937, Rockefeller’s net worth was estimated around $1.35 billion. The entire GDP of the U.S. by then was $92 billion.

Never in the history of the United States did any private citizen acquire such an amount of wealth as the one accumulated by John D. Rockefeller. This explains why he is sometimes considered the richest American in recent history.

Rockefeller versus U.S. Congress

The staggering wealth inequality (between the extremely rich and the poor) forced many legislators to enact laws to bust trusts, improve labor rights, tax reforms, and civil rights reforms. In so many ways, those reforms helped shift power away from oil barons like Rockefeller’s family during the Progressive Era. | Image: Rockefeller as an industrial emperor, 1901 cartoon from Puck magazine

As more and more people, especially Middle Class American families, became frustrated with the Gilded Age, a new age – the Progressive Era (1890-1920) – emerged with the aim of placing social, economic and political power back in the hands of the people.

A significant number of legislators on Capitol Hill joined in the populist and democratic themes of the Progressive Movement. Beginning around the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, progressive liberal politicians began going after the likes of John D. Rockefeller and his associates.

In a bid to clip the immense political and economic power that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil held in the industry, the U.S. Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. As part of the sweeping reforms of the Progressive Era, the U.S. Supreme Court in Ohio broke up Standard Oil Trust in 1892. Twenty-one years later, in 1911, the Supreme Court also broke up the last big section of Rockefeller’s empire – Standard Oil of New Jersey. The company was dissolved into more than two dozen individual companies.

Rockefeller Philanthropic Causes and the Rockefeller Foundation

Towards his early 60s, Rockefeller was less active in the daily operations of his business empire. By this time, he had successfully mentored his oldest son John D. Rockefeller Jr. to take the reins of the Rockefeller empire.

In the last few decades of his life, the business magnate was inspired by the incredible amounts of personal fortune that his fellow business tycoon Andrew Carnegie had donated to charitable causes

Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world at time, set out to follow in the philanthropic footsteps of Carnegie. He donated more than $500 million dollars of his own money to charity.

He set up the Rockefeller Foundation to disburse those monies to many charities across the world, including those that operated in the educational, scientific and religious spheres.

The Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation was established with the goal of promoting the general well-being of humanity across the globe. The private foundation was established in New York on May 14, 1913.

Unbeknownst to many people, John D. Rockefeller’s generous donation is what helped establish the University of Chicago. In the scientific sector, he helped fund the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (presently called the Rockefeller University).

More Rockefeller accomplishments

Rockefeller made an immense amount of money from his Standard Oil Trust, an empire which controlled up to 90 percent of refineries and oil pipelines in the United States. With such amounts of money at his disposal, he could embark on numerous charitable initiatives. Here are a few more achievements of John D. Rockefeller:

  • John D. Rockefeller was also involved with charitable organizations that fought hard to successfully eradicate hookworm disease in the southern United States.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation, a foundation tasked to enhance the well-being of humanity across the world, was also involved in funding yellow fever research which ultimately culminated in the development of a vaccine to tackle the disease.
  • He was involved in the establishment or development of many organizations like Central Philippine University, General Education Board, and the Peking Union Medical College in China.
  • Having amassed that kind of fortune in the oil industry, John D. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire.

More John D. Rockefeller Facts

John D. Rockefeller co-founded the Standard Oil in 1870. | Image: John D. Rockefeller in 1895

  • He loved to play golf. Perhaps his association with the sport is what made many develop the stereotype that golf was a favorite past time for the rich and elite.
  • Rockefeller advocated temperance.
  • Rockefeller named a college that he set up in Atlanta, Georgia after his dear wife Laura Celestia Spelman. The name of the college is Spelman College, a historically black women’s college.
  • Had Winston Churchill’s price not been so high, John D. Rockefeller would have used him to write an authorized biography. The future British prime minister and World War II hero demanded an advance of $250,000 from the Rockefeller family in the 1930s. The Rockefellers declined and opted for Allan Nevins, a historian at the Columbia University.
  • He was a religious man who believed in tithing 10 percent of his income to the church. Much of those religious values were given to him by his mother.
  • John D. Rockefeller’s father, William Avery Rockefeller, was said to be a traveling snake-oil salesman. However, Avery Rockefeller did not shy away from using unscrupulous means to earn some extra money. He was infamous for being a con artist who had extramarital affairs. At one time, he even posed as an eye doctor called Dr. William Levingston.
  • Rockefeller annually commemorated September 26 as his “job day”. It was in celebration of the day – September 26, 1855 – that he entered the world of work.
  • He died at the age of 97 at his winter home in Ormond Beach, Florida. The oil magnate was buried at the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • A member of the Republican Party, John D. Rockefeller donated heavily to the party’s cause, including contributing a lot to William McKinley‘s presidential campaign in 1896. Kind courtesy of those generous contributions McKinley was able to secure the White House job in the 1896 presidential election, having defeated  Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.
  • John D. Rockefeller and his business partner M.B. Clark made an awful amount of money doing business with the federal government during the American Civil War.
  • Like many of the reasonably affluent men, including the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller paid substitute soldiers to fight in his place during the American Civil War (1861-1865). His younger brother William Rockefeller, however, fought in the war.Bear in mind, such a practice was quite common at the time.

John D. Rockefeller biography and achievements | Rockefeller’s explanation for not fighting in the American Civil War

Criticisms against John D. Rockefeller and his business practices

A number of criticisms were leveled against John D. Rockefeller over how he amassed such staggering amounts of wealth. It was alleged that he broke many anti-trust laws in order to enrich himself and his associates. He was accused of unethically gathering information on competitors and bullying those very companies into joining his business empire, and among other unsavory business practices.

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