- For other uses of the surname Rockefeller, see Rockefeller (disambiguation)
1917 painting by John Singer Sargent.
John Davison Rockefeller (July 8, 1839 – May 23, 1937) was an American capitalist most known for his role in the early petroleum industry and the founding of Standard Oil (ExxonMobil is the largest of its descendants). Through his ruthless business tactics, Rockefeller guided Standard Oil to be the largest oil refining business in the world, while amassing a substantial personal fortune. Much of this wealth was then given away, resulting in his legacy as a great philanthropist.
John Davison Rockefeller was born in Richford, New York, the second of the six children to William Avery Rockefeller (November 13, 1810 - May 11, 1906) and his wife Eliza Davison (September 12, 1813 - March 28, 1889). In 1853 his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he had begun to work as a bookkeeper in 1855. In 1858 he went into the produce commission business. His firm, Clark & Rockefeller, invested in an oil refinery in 1862, and in 1865 Rockefeller sold out his share to his partner Clark, paid $72,500 for a larger share in another refinery, and formed the partnership of Rockefeller & Andrews.
At about the same time Rockefeller's brother, William, started another refinery. In 1867 Rockefeller & Andrews absorbed this business, and Henry M. Flagler joined the partnership. In 1870 the two Rockefellers, Flagler, Andrews and a refiner named Stephen V. Harkness formed the Standard Oil Company, with John D. Rockefeller as president.
In the early 1870s, Charles Pratt and Henry H. Rogers, two of the early pioneers of the emerging U.S. petroleum industry, became involved in conflicts with the infamous South Improvement Company, which was basically a scheme to obtain favorable net rates from the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and other railroads through a secret system of rebates. Rockefeller and the South Improvement Company scheme outraged independent oil producers in western Pennsylvania and refineries there and afar alike.
The opposition to the South Improvement Company scheme among the New York refiners was led by Rogers. The New York interests formed an association, and about the middle of March, 1872, sent a committee of three, with Rogers, of Charles Pratt and Company, as head, to Oil City to consult with the Oil Producers' Union there. Their arrival in the oil regions was a matter of great satisfaction. Working with the Pennsylvania independents, they managed to forge an agreement with the PRR and other railroads whose leaders eventually agreed to open rates to all and promised to end their shady dealings with South Improvement. The oil men were most exultant, but their joy was to be short-lived, for Rockefeller had already begun forming his Standard Oil organization and was busy trying another approach, which included frequently buying-up opposing interests.
Rockefeller approached Charles Pratt with his plans of cooperation and consolidation. Pratt talked it over with Rogers, and they decided that the combination would benefit them. Rogers formulated terms, which guaranteed financial security and jobs for Pratt and himself. John D. Rockefeller quietly accepted the offer on Rogers' exact terms. Charles Pratt and Company (including Astral Oil) became one of the important formerly independent refiners to join Rockefeller's organization in 1874. Pratt's son, Charles Millard Pratt (1858-1913) became Secretary of Standard Oil. Henry H. Rogers became one of Rockefeller's key men.
Standard Oil gradually gained virtual control of oil production in America. Its business methods, which brought immense wealth to the ownership and possibly lower prices for consumers, were widely and severely criticized. Its growth increased further in 1882, when separate companies were organized in each state; and in later years, as the first great American trust, the Standard Oil Company was hotly attacked during the anti-trust movement, especially after the publication of the 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida Tarbell, whose father had been driven out of business by Rockefeller's business arrangement with the South Improvement Company.
Rockefeller himself retired from active business in 1895 though retained his title as president until 1911. At one time he had large iron interests, including mines and ore-carrying ships, on Lake Superior. He sold those to U.S. Steel. He also played a key role in the Chase Manhattan Bank, as did some of his descendents. By 1901, he was worth about $900 million and is believed to have been the world's richest man at the time. His net worth when adjusted for inflation would put him in the top twenty modern day billionaires; however, when adjusted for the size of the United States economy in his day, his net worth would dwarf that of any of today's billionaires. In 2001, it was estimated that in contemporary money Rockefeller would be worth $200 billion.
On May 15, 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States held that Standard Oil, which held 64% market share, was a monopoly and ordered it to be broken up, resulting in the creation of approximately 37 new companies.
Rockefeller married Laura Celestia Spelman (1839-1915), a teacher, on September 8, 1864 in Cleveland. The couple had five children — four daughters and a son. The daughters were Bessie (1866-1906), Alice (1869-1870), who died in infancy, Alta (1871-1962), and Edith (August 31, 1872 - August 25, 1932). The youngest of the five children was his only son John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960).
While he had always given money to charities in accordance with his strong Baptist beliefs, his public reputation while he was active in business was strongly negative. On March 3, 1910 Rockefeller announced his retirement from managing his businesses and devoted his attention to philanthropy. By the time of his death it is estimated he had given away about $500,000,000, and his image had become largely benign. He was particularly notable as one of the earliest and largest private benefactors of scientific medical research. He founded the University of Chicago in 1890, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York City in 1901, the General Education Board in 1902, the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1918, as well as giving large gifts to other institutions. His gift of $5 million dollars helped found the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Rockefeller also made huge gifts to members of his family in the last decades of his life, especially to his son John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his descendents remained among the richest and most influential families in the United States throughout the 20th century. He retained only a small fraction of the wealth he had made when he died in Ormond Beach, Florida in 1937.
Rockefeller's grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, was Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford and another grandson Winthrop Rockefeller served as Governor of Arkansas. His great-grandson Jay Rockefeller (John D. Rockefeller IV) is currently a member of the U.S. Senate.
John D. Rockerduck, a Walt Disney Company character who is popular in Europe, is named after him, because of all of his good deeds. An example is his habit of giving away shiny new dimes to others on the street.
- Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 1998. ISBN 0679438084.
- Burton W. Folsom, Jr., The Myth of the Robber Barons, Young America.
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