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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Study: Wealthiest Americans of All Time

Special Reports

Study: Wealthiest Americans of All Time

CEOWORLD magazine has released a report outlining the 25 wealthiest Americans of all time, based on an analysis of wealth figures for both alive and deceased key figures. Their combined net worth is estimated to be a staggering $4.5 trillion, and their incredible success is attributed to a combination of sharp business skills, a pioneering outlook, and sometimes very intense rivalry. The report also states that currently, the United States has 735 billionaires.

This elite ranking features 25 individuals who have amassed amazing fortunes that exceed the impressive figure of $66 billion when adjusted for 2023’s economic conditions. Among these billionaires, ten are still alive, and their collective net worth is more than $1.17 trillion, mostly due to the success of the tech sector in the U.S. economy.

During the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age saw the emergence of some of America’s wealthiest citizens. This period was accompanied by rapid growth in the nation’s population, as immigrants came into major cities in search of employment. Capitalizing on the trends of the time, such as those in the coal, steel, oil, railroad, and shipping industries, these individuals were able to accumulate great wealth. With relatively little oversight from the government, bankers and industrialists prospered.

It is imperative to recognize that there were some individuals during the Gilded Age, commonly known as “robber barons,” who got their wealth by unethical means. These tactics included bribing of public officials, obstructing labor union activity, and crushing their competitors. Remarkably, the current inequality in income in the U.S. can be linked to the progress in technology, resulting in a wide gap between income levels.

If you are interested in discovering who the 25 wealthiest people in the United States are, your search is over. This exclusive list includes individuals who have acquired their wealth through an array of activities, from the beginnings of American industry to the current tech world. It is remarkable to consider the total wealth of these famous people.

  1. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $320 billion
    John D. Rockefeller, the first American billionaire and still the wealthiest American ever, started as a merchant in goods like meats and grains. However, he shifted his focus to the oil industry, sensing better opportunities. In 1870, he and his partners founded Standard Oil, one of the most successful companies in American history.

    John D. Rockefeller

    Rockefeller pioneered concepts like vertical integration, enabling him to maintain low costs and high margins by controlling various aspects of the oil supply chain. He also standardized oil quality, which had been poor until then. A decade after its founding, Standard Oil dominated over 90% of American oil production. In 1911, the Supreme Court-dissolved Standard Oil under antitrust laws, with Rockefeller already the first U.S. billionaire, possessing a fortune worth $306.4 billion in 2023 dollars.

  2. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $250 billion
    Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of only two Americans whose fortunes exceeded $200 billion in 2021 dollars. He first made his fortune ferrying goods on the rivers surrounding New York City, working his way up from steamship captain to building ships and operating ferry routes. He developed a reputation as a ruthless businessman, undercutting and intimidating competitors.

    Cornelius Vanderbilt

    Vanderbilt became extravagantly wealthy by launching the fastest steamship route from New York to California during the middle of the 19th century, capitalizing on the many people heading west to search for gold. He later helped establish the transcontinental railroad industry, which helped to make him one of the wealthiest people in history.

  3. Sam Walton (1918-1992)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $204.3 billion
    Sam Walton is one of the most successful businessmen of all time, taking Walmart from a small discount store in Arkansas into the largest retailer in the world. Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. By 1970, the company went public. With the store, the wealth of Waltons expanded as well. By 1985, he became the wealthiest man in America.
    The heirs of Sam Walton still own roughly half of the Walmart stocks, giving them a combined net worth of over $200 billion and making the Waltons the wealthiest family in America.
  4. Elon Musk (1971-present)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $256 Billion
    Elon Musk, the current wealthiest living American, was born in South Africa and moved to Canada at 17 before coming to the U.S. to study at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen in 2002. Musk initially became a millionaire by selling Zip2, the online city guide company he co-founded with his brother, in 1999. He became a billionaire in 2002 when PayPal, another company he co-founded, was acquired by eBay.

    Elon Musk

    Most of his net worth comes from his recent ventures, particularly Tesla Motors, his electric car company, and SpaceX, his rocket company. According to Bloomberg, he owns approximately 13% of Tesla and other exercisable options despite pledging more than half as loan collateral. Musk also holds a substantial stake in SpaceX, valued at around $137 billion as of January 2023, roughly 42%, though this value has recently declined.
    Musk purchased the social media platform Twitter in October 2022 for $44 billion. Since he bought Twitter, Musk has cut its workforce to about 1,500 from 8,000, trimmed costs, offered new features, and altered content-moderation policies. He also rebranded the social media platform, which is now called “X.”

  5. John Jacob Astor (1763-1848)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $169 billion
    John Jacob Astor became one of the first individuals to live out the American Dream, working his way up from being a poor German immigrant to a real estate mogul with a net worth exceeding $160 billion in 2023 dollars.
    Astor married into a wealthy family in 1785 and used his wife’s money to launch his empire.A year after marrying, he began his business, which became the nation’s largest fur company by 1800. Astor exported furs to China and imported silk and tea. In the 1830s, he sold his fur businesses, shifting his focus to New York City real estate holdings, including hotels and residences. These valuable properties made him the wealthiest man in America by his death in 1848.
  6. Jeff Bezos (1964-present)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $152 Billion
    Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ranks as the third richest person in the world and the seventh richest American of all time, with a net worth of $138.2 billion as of April 2023. The company, which started as an online bookseller in 1994, has become the dominant force in e-commerce. Amazon has also successfully diversified into a web service provider and a streaming entertainment service. Bezos stepped down as CEO to become the executive chairman in 2021.
    In 2019, he and his wife, MacKenzie, divorced after 25 years of marriage. By their separation agreement, he transferred her one-fourth of his Amazon stake, which was then 16%. At the time of the divorce settlement, that was worth $38 billion. He retains a 10% stake in the company.
    In 2022, Bezos donated more than $400 million worth of stock to nonprofits. In the same year, he informed CNN of his intention to donate most of his wealth during his lifetime, although he did not provide specific details.
  7. Stephen Girard (1750-1831)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $148 billion
    Though he was born before the founding of the United States, Stephen Girard became one of its most influential early business tycoons. Born in France in 1750, Girard sailed to the colonies in 1774, selling goods like sugar and coffee. He amassed a fleet of trading ships and invested much of his money in the First Bank of the United States.
    In 1778, Girard became an American citizen. He eventually bought the bank’s assets and used them to lend millions of dollars to the young country during the War of 1812, keeping its government afloat.
  8.  Larry Ellison (1944-present)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $140 Billion
    Larry Ellison founded the software company Oracle in 1977. The company got its big break in 1981 when IBM used the database management system of Oracle. Though he stepped down as the CEO of Oracle in 2014, Ellison still owns over a third of the company stocks. He sat on the board of Tesla from December 2018 to August 2022 and still holds about 15 million of the electric carmaker’s shares. Like many other living billionaires on this list, the net worth of Ellison has surged from $65 billion in October 2019 to $125.9 billion by April 2023. In 2020, Ellison moved to the Hawaiian island Lanai, nearly all of which he bought eight years earlier for $300 million.
  9. Richard Mellon (1858-1933)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $127 billion
    Richard Mellon and his brother Andrew rank as one of the wealthiest Americans of all time, with his massive fortune amounting to nearly $125 billion in 2023 dollars. They were born to wealthy Pennsylvania banker Thomas Mellon. They eventually took charge of the family banking firm.
    Their wealth in late 1800s Pennsylvania gave the Mellons an ideal chance to invest in the steel, coal, and railroad industries that enriched numerous men of their time as the United States rapidly industrialized and expanded westward.
  10. Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839)
    > 2023 estimated net worth: $124 billion 
    Stephen Van Rensselaer inherited virtually all of his fortune, worth $122 billion dollars in 2023. Born in 1764, he was the final member of his bloodline to get a large land grant in the new Dutch colonial area of the New World, in present-day New York state. At one time, Van Rensselaer possessed more than a million acres of American land and potentially had up to 100,000 tenants leasing land from him.
    In addition to owning land, Van Rensselaer was involved in politics, serving as an assemblyman, senator, lieutenant governor for New York, and a representative in Congress. Van Rensselaer was well-liked, often forgiving missed rent payments. After his death, however, many tenants refused to pay rent to his heirs, sparking what came to be known as the “Antirent Wars.”
  11. Warren Buffett (1930-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $123 Billion
    Warren Buffett, celebrated as the “Oracle of Omaha,” is a contemporary legend in the investing world. He founded the Buffett Partnership in 1956, rapidly amassing a millionaire’s status.
    He later acquired the textile firm, Berkshire Hathaway, eventually divesting its textile division and expanding through acquisitions of diverse companies, including full ownership or significant investments in entities like Geico and Exxon. Today, shares of Berkshire Hathaway are among the most coveted in the stock market.
    Buffett is well-known for his philanthropic efforts, with over $28 billion in donations and a commitment to allocate his entire fortune to charitable causes. He has also influenced other affluent individuals to follow suit.
  12. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $122 billion 
    Amid America’s transportation infrastructure expansion, Carnegie’s company was a key steel supplier. Carnegie Steel Corporation employed innovative methods to produce vast quantities of steel and possessed the requisite raw materials, rendering production cost-effective.
    Distinguishing himself from many of his contemporaries, Carnegie displayed an unwavering commitment to philanthropy. Famously, he declared that “a man who dies rich dies disgraced” and subsequently directed nearly all of his wealth toward charitable organizations and libraries.
  13. Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $120 billion
    Alexander Turney Stewart belongs to the select group of Americans who amassed a fortune surpassing $100 billion in contemporary dollars. He began his journey by turning a humble $3,000 inheritance into one of the largest retail empires in U.S. history.
    Born in Ireland, Stewart ventured to America to trade dry goods and notably pioneered the introduction of fixed prices, replacing haggling with standardized pricing. His company expanded to such an extent that it secured a contract to supply uniforms for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
  14. Larry Page (1973-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $110 Billion
    Larry Page, co-founder of Google, ranks among the top 10 wealthiest individuals globally and is counted among the richest Americans in history. Page assumed the role of Google’s CEO twice, initially leading the company from its inception in 1998 through 2001 and later serving as CEO from 2011 to 2015. Later, Sundar Pichai took over as CEO in 2019 after overseeing Google’s transition to its parent company, Alphabet. Despite relinquishing his executive role, Page retains a board seat at the company and maintains a controlling stake as a shareholder.
  15. Bill Gates (1955-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $109 Billion
    Bill Gates has repeatedly claimed the title of the world’s wealthiest individual since the 1990s, and his staggering fortune, nearing $114 billion in 2023, secures his place among the most affluent Americans in history.
    Gates famously left Harvard University to co-establish the tech giant Microsoft in 1975. In 1987, Gates became the world’s youngest billionaire at 31 due to Microsoft’s success, and eight years later, he became the world’s richest person.
    In recent years, Gates has increasingly shifted his focus away from the day-to-day operations of Microsoft, dedicating his efforts to philanthropy alongside his ex-wife through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Founded in 2000, this organization is the world’s largest private charity, committing significant funds to combat COVID-19, including investments in vaccines, detection, and treatment. Following their divorce in August 2021 after 27 years of marriage, the couple remains parents to three children.
  16. Friedrich Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $108 billion
    Friedrich Weyerhaeuser immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young man, where he swiftly achieved success in the timber industry. In 1860, Weyerhaeuser and his brother-in-law acquired a struggling lumber mill. His innovative practice of marking the logs cut by his workers for easy identification downstream propelled his business to remarkable heights.
    Ascending the ranks, Weyerhaeuser eventually assumed the presidency of the Mississippi River Logging Company. Subsequently, he formed the Weyerhaeuser Syndicate, a consortium that held dominion over vast expanses of timberland, mills, and processing plants. Toward the end of his life, investigations revealed elements of monopoly within his holdings, leading to the dissolution of some of the syndicate’s subsidiaries.
  17. Mark Zuckerberg (1984-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $106 Billion
    Mark Zuckerberg has made an indelible mark on modern society, inspiring a Hollywood film about his rapid rise by the age of 26. He co-founded Facebook during his time at Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth intimately depends on the performance of Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, in which he holds about 13% of the shares. In 2022, his fortune experienced a notable downturn due to investor skepticism about his vision for the metaverse, resulting in an estimated decrease of $71 billion, or 57%, from 2021, as reported by The Street.
    Subsequently, Zuckerberg refocused on Facebook’s core products and services for social network users, leading to a remarkable resurgence. The company’s stock price doubled, paralleled by a surge in Zuckerberg’s wealth, which soared by $45.2 billion to reach $90.8 billion as of May 22, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have committed to donate a substantial portion of their Facebook stock over their lifetimes.
  18. Sergey Brin (1973-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $105 Billion
    Sergey Brin’s origin traces back to Moscow in 1973, where he and his family emigrated to the United States to escape the discrimination faced by Jewish people during the Soviet era. While pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science at Stanford University, Brin, in collaboration with fellow student Larry Page, conceived a groundbreaking search engine designed to deliver the most relevant search results. This innovative project laid the foundation for Google, now the world’s preeminent search engine.
    Brin achieved billionaire status in 2004 when Google went public. The company’s growth trajectory encompassed acquisitions like YouTube and the expansion of its own product offerings. In 2015, Google underwent a restructuring, forming the parent entity Alphabet, with Brin serving as its president until his departure in 2019.
  19. Steve Ballmer (1956-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $98 Billion
    Steve Ballmer, renowned as the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, forged his wealth during his extensive tenure at tech titan Microsoft. He joined the company’s ranks as one of its earliest employees in 1980 and assumed the role of CEO in 2000, succeeding Bill Gates. Ballmer held this position until 2014.
    In addition to his estimated 4% stake in Microsoft, Ballmer also maintained a similar ownership interest in the social media platform Twitter. However, he divested his Twitter stake in May 2018, not due to a lack of faith in its future but because the stock had reached recent highs.
    In 2022, Ballmer and his philanthropic-minded wife, Connie, donated around $425 million to the University of Oregon to establish an institute addressing the behavioral and mental health needs of children in the state.
  20. Jay Gould (1836-1892)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $96 billion
    Jay Gould personified the era of “robber barons” in American capitalism, frequently resorting to unscrupulous tactics to amass and safeguard his wealth. Hailing from a modest farming family in New York, Gould’s journey began in an animal hide tannery before he accumulated sufficient capital to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry.
    Gould’s wealth acquisition featured fraudulent stock price manipulation and the subsequent bribery of New York state politicians to condone such practices. His vehement opposition to labor organizers and strikes drew significant media condemnation. Despite this, Gould’s relentless wealth accumulation secured his legacy as one of the wealthiest Americans in history, with a fortune that exceeds $84 billion in today’s terms.
  21. Michael Bloomberg (1942-present)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $95 Billion
    Michael Bloomberg began his career on Wall Street but later ventured into entrepreneurship by founding an information technology company focused on the financial industry. The cornerstone of his immense wealth is the success of the Bloomberg Terminal, a pioneering platform introduced in 1982 that provided traders with a computerized means to collect, analyze, and share critical financial data.
    Beyond his business endeavors, Bloomberg also served as the three-term mayor of New York City and pursued a presidential campaign in 2019, though it proved unsuccessful.
  22. Marshall Field (1834-1906)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $92 billion
    Marshall Field, a diligent salesman, amassed his wealth through his eponymous chain of department stores. He commenced his career as a teenager at a Chicago mercantile firm and steadily ascended the ranks within the retail establishment, eventually becoming a partner. Ultimately, Field bought out his partners and rebranded the stores as Marshall Field and Company.
    Field coined the enduring motto “the customer is always right,” a philosophy that supported his business success. He innovatively catered to the middle-class and female clientele during the post-Civil War era.
  23. Henry Ford (1863-1947)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $82 billion
    Henry Ford, famed for his automotive empire and the revolutionary assembly line, remains a significant figure in American industry, reducing production time significantly.
    This innovative manufacturing approach enabled Ford to offer the Model T at an affordable price, making it the first car attainable for a significant portion of the American population. At one point, over half of all Americans owned a Model T. Ford’s company’s success propelled him to the status of the wealthiest individual in America during the final decade of his life, from 1937 to 1947.
  24. Andrew Mellon (1855-1937)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $77 billion
    Andrew Mellon and his brother Richard pursued a joint path to become prominent business magnates and join America’s wealthiest individuals. Born into the prosperous Mellon family, which included banker Thomas Mellon, Andrew took charge of the family’s banking enterprise. He also played a pivotal role in establishing the Union Trust Company and the Union Savings Bank of Pittsburgh.
    The triumph of these financial institutions empowered Mellon to make substantial investments in emerging sectors, contributing significantly to his vast fortune. His contributions extended to the founding of the Aluminum Company of America and the Gulf Oil Corporation. Additionally, Mellon served as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury for over a decade.
  25. Moses Taylor (1806-1882)
    > Estimated Wealth in 2023: Approximately $66 billion
    Moses Taylor’s father served as an assistant to one of America’s wealthiest historical figures, John Jacob Astor. Taylor used his father’s wealth to invest in various sectors, including railroads, shipping, steel, and coal.
    In 1837, Taylor assumed a directorship at New York’s City Bank, now known as CitiBank. His ascent through the ranks culminated in his presidency of the bank in 1856, a role he retained until his passing in 1882.

These are the top 25 wealthiest Americans who underscore the remarkable diversity of paths to prosperity within the United States. Visionary industrialists from the past to today’s tech titans have amassed significant wealth while also playing key roles in shaping the nation’s economic path. Their accomplishments testify to the opportunities and innovation inherent in the American dream.

Beyond their financial success, many on this list have demonstrated a commitment to philanthropy, leaving a lasting legacy of societal impact. As we contemplate their stories and contributions, we gain valuable insights into the interplay of entrepreneurship, innovation, and philanthropy that have helped define the landscape of American wealth.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Study: Wealthiest Americans of All Time
Diya Mukherjee
Features & Analysis Editor at the CEOWORLD magazine. Diya has a wide range of interests in literature, culture, media, politics, science and technology, business and economy, and social issues. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) degree in Comparative Literature. She likes to write on diverse topics and explore new perspectives.