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America’s first wealthy

John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) was the patriarch of America’s first multi-millionaire family. The son of a German butcher, John Jacob Astor emigrated to America around 1873. Astor created a fortune exporting animal pelts to Europe. Sensing that his son didn’t inherit his acumen for business, John Jacob sold off his business with impeccable timing to become a dominant landowner in New York where he left his mark as a developer and patron of the arts.

Unlike most American family dynasties, the Astor family wealth survived more than two centuries. Today, not one Astor makes the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest people globally. Only the Du Pont family, who emigrated from France, have similar claims to long-surviving family wealth. Though they too no longer have a single family member of the Forbes 400.

What little remains of the Astor family fortune left for the United Kingdom some one hundred years ago where its property wealth has since been cashed out. In America, the last “Mrs [Brooke] Astor” and second wife of Vincent Astor (1891-1959), spent almost five decades philanthropically distributing the family’s wealth following her husband’s death. Vincent Astor was the son of John Jacob V, the great grandson of the family patriarch, who died the richest man aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic ocean liner.

The longevity of the Astor family wealth contrasts with those continuing with business roots including Busch (1876) Cargill (1865), Du Pont (1802), Mellon (1860), Rockefeller (1870). Noticeably absent from today’s wealthiest families are the Clarks and the Vanderbilts and more latterly the descendants of J Pierpont Morgan, himself a third-generation banker. Andrew Carnegie specifically excluded the prospect of a family dynasty having entered a prenuptial agreement with his wife, Louise, stating his intentions to give the bulk of his great fortune away before he died.

John Jacob Astor died the wealthiest man in America with an accrued worth estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. Of his children, his first, John Jacob I, was born severely mentally impaired and one of his daughters, Magdalen, was said to suffer mental outbursts that saw two husbands abandon the great wealth that accompanied family membership. This was the time of patrimony and not philanthropy when it came to bequeathing wealth.

In a fledgling American republic, Astor’s bequeathing his great estate to his son, who had not earned it, was likened to the baronial lord endowments of the Middle Ages[1].  This likening is somewhat ironic in that America’s first industrialists of the “Gilded Age” are unflatteringly referred to as “robber barons” by many economic historians. A greater irony arose, however, when William Backhouse Astor passes his estate to his son William Waldorf who in turn bequeaths his inheritance to John Jacob III. The great grandson, with title to the family fortune, emigrates to London and becomes Baron Astor and then Viscount Astor.

John Jacob’s accumulated wealth, in today’s dollar terms, easily matches that of Microsoft’s  Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  John Jacob’s son, William Backhouse, did little to expand his inherited wealth unlike the son of America’s first centi-millionaire Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt’s son William doubled his father’s fortune in under a decade of the Commodore’s passing by selling off a majority interest in the New York Central Railway. William Henry [Billy] Vanderbilt also dispensed with the primogeniture tradition of bequeathing his inherited wealth to a single child.

Outside of America, the Rothschild family dynasty, can be traced back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) in Germany, whose sons set up finance houses in Austria, England, France, and Italy. Of the sons, Nathan von Rothschild (1777-1836), who held an Austrian barony, would establish the family’s banking interests in London and predate any American as the wealthiest person in the world. Nathan’s son would become the first Jew to enter the English Parliament and the first Baron Rothschild; a hereditary title that continues today.


[1] Derek Wilson, The Astors, 1763-1922. New York: St Martins Press, 1993, 84-5.