John D. Rockefeller: Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

John D. Rockefeller was the founder of the Standard Oil Company, and one of the greatest philanthropists in United States History. His actions as a businessman and industrialist set standards for government policies in the regulation of monopolies.

John D. Rockefeller

The Life of John D. Rockefeller

On July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York, John D. Rockefeller was born. His father was a farmer who owned land, and traded in many goods including medicines. His mother was a strong and quiet Baptist woman with strict morals and beliefs. In 1853, the family moved to Cleveland Ohio, where John graduated from High School. No surprise to the future, John was mathematically gifted.

After graduation, he tried community college for about three months until he got his first job. He worked as a produce clerk at the age of 16. At the age of 19 (yes, 19!), he started his first business with an Englishman called Clark and Rockefeller. The partnership made 450,000 dollars in the first year of trading. Clark did the work in the field, while Rockefeller handled the books, management, and banking relationships.


Rockefeller was extremely skilled in organization and management. The firm took its next stop during the Civil War. When the government finished a railroad to Cleveland, Clark and Rockefeller decided to branch out with the help of another wealthy businessman Samuel Andrews. Within two years, Clark was bought out. Andrews along with Rockefeller owned the largest oil refinery in Cleveland. Partnering with S.V. Harkness and H.M. Flagler, who helped set up favorable freight rates on the railroad, they flourished.

In 1870, adding his brother the mix, these men founded the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. Within a year they were a one million dollar corporation making 40 percent profit. The next move was for Rockefeller to buy out most of the other Cleveland refineries as well as those in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York.

In an attempt to slow him down, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened up a refinery. As a result of the Panic of 1873, the railroad was hit with a series of bloody strikes by their workers. Standard Oil won out. By 1879, it was refining 90 percent of American oil.

The year 1892 saw the birth of a new business practice called a 'trust.' A trust is a relationship in which property is held by one party for the benefit of another. Standard Oil placed its' wealth outside of Ohio into Flagler's hands as a trustee. Since laws in Ohio didn't let just one company to buy another, Rockefeller placed nine trustees in different states with them owning over 40 corporations. Stockholders received certificates of ownership, forming the world's largest and richest industrial organization with a net worth of 70 million dollars.

Tarbell Muckraking

Trust formation for Rockefeller got a lot of criticism and opposition, and it ultimately became referred to as muckraking, basically meaning his name and actions were 'dragged through the muck.' Ida Tarbell and Henry Demarest Lloyd attacked Standard Oil and Rockefeller with a myriad of accusations including price fixing, illegal rebates, production control, and bribery to name a few. The United States government also took up the fight to stop trusts. Rockefeller dissolved the trust and set up what was known as a holding company, which is a company that owns other companies' outstanding stock.

His most famous venture outside of Standard Oil was in Minnesota and the Mesabi iron ore production. Rockefeller made a deal with Andrew Carnegie not to try to take over the iron ore, but he ran the transportation of the Great Lakes. His net worth was over 200 million dollars.

According to Andrew Carnegie in his article called his 'Gospel of Wealth,' what made the man is what he gave back to society. Philanthropy was a great part of the Rockefeller legacy. At the age of 16, Rockefeller made a pledge to himself that ten percent of what he made he would give back to society. From 16 years old until his death he did just that.

For example, the University of Chicago was started by Rockefeller with an 80 million dollar donation. Rockefeller University in New York and the Rockefeller Center in New York were among the largest contributions estimated at 550 million dollars in donations. He gave so much back that he had to start a company, the Rockefeller Foundation, to handle his philanthropy in excess of 900 million dollars. He died in May of 1937.

Standard Oil

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