Making the Big Bucks: America's Top-Earning Business People Throughout History

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:37:53 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

There are wealthy people — and then there’s this group of the richest Americans throughout the entire history of the country. These savvy billionaires obtained their wealth through technology inventions, investments and their own business acumen and didn’t inherit a dime.

Many of them acquired their fortunes during the Gilded Age, when the United States was bursting with new inventions. Let’s take a look at the wealthiest individuals in U.S. history, based on their net worth after adjusting for today’s inflation. If you’re an aspiring businessman (or woman), pay attention because these gurus clearly knew exactly what to do to succeed.

30. Laurene Powell Jobs, $23.3 Billion

You might not recognize Laurene Powell Jobs, but you certainly know her late husband, Steve Jobs, who had a net worth of $10.2 billion at the time of his death in 2011. Laurene met the future Apple founder while she was studying at Stanford University, and the rest was history for the couple.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

After her husband’s death, Laurene inherited everything, but she also helped him build the fortune, so she is much more than just an heiress. Today, she is a philanthropist and an executive at the Emerson Collective, an organization that advocates for sustainability and policies toward social improvement. She has a total net worth of $23.3 billion.

29. Michael Dell, $37.6 Billion

American billionaire businessman Michael Dell founded Dell Technologies, one of the world’s largest technology companies. He started his career as an amateur salesman and sold $18,000 worth of magazine subscriptions in high school. Consider that the first sign he was destined to lead a successful business.

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Today, Dell has a net worth of $37.6 billion, and he still owns 12% of Dell Technologies. The company has gone private and public several times throughout the years, with the most recent public stock offering in late 2018 to help the company gain further financial stability.

28. John Insley Blair, $47.7 Billion

John Insley Blair (1802-1899) was an American entrepreneur in the railroad industry. Working prominently during the Industrial Revolution, Blair was one of the wealthiest men in the country during the 19th century with a fortune of $70 million. As president of 16 railroad companies, he was able to live quite comfortably.

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Blair was involved in many philanthropic projects, including founding more than 100 churches close to his railroads. In his youth, he said, "I am going to get rich," and he certainly followed his dreams. In 2019, Blair’s estimated net worth would be $47.7 billion.

27. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, $48.3 Billion

Cyrus H. K. Curtis (1850-1933) earned his wealth in the publishing industry. In 1883, he founded The Ladies’ Home Journal, the first magazine to reach a circulation of one million subscriptions. In 1891, Curtis founded the Curtis Publishing Company, which published The Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

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The publishing giant is forever remembered for his smart business sense, including knowing how to keep a magazine alive and running. His 2019 estimated net worth would be $48.3 billion, making him one of the richest Americans in history.

26. William Weightman, $51.8 Billion

William Weightman (1813-1904) was a chemical manufacturer, who developed a synthetic form of quinine to treat malaria. When his uncle, chemist John Farr, died in 1847, Weightman became an administrator of his business, renaming it Powers and Weightman to represent his partnership with Thomas Powers. He profited substantially from quinine sales during the Civil War.

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Weightman also obtained wealth by purchasing hundreds of farms in North Philadelphia. On the properties, he built neighborhoods with middle-class housing. His smart real estate moves led him to earn an adjusted net worth of $51.8 billion.

25. Sergey Brin, $52 Billion

If you Google Sergey Brin, you’re using the search engine the computer scientist created. Along with Larry Page, Brin founded Google in 1998. He met Page while the two attended Stanford University, and as college students, they built the prototype for Google.

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Brin found Google to be successful on the college campus, so they both discontinued their Ph.D. programs to start building Google in a garage — and the rest is billion-dollar history. Everyone uses and depends on Google for answers, and Brin now has a net worth of $52 billion.

24. James G. Fair, $52.9 Billion

James G. Fair (1831-1894) was a successful mining engineer and businessman during an age when everyone was mining for gold and silver. Along with other partners, he made his money on the Hale and Norcross Mine and Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867.

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Later in his career, Fair invested in railroads and real estate properties, increasing his fortune to $50 million. He co-owned (with John William Mackay) the Nevada Bank of San Francisco, which was the largest bank in America at one point. Fair’s net worth would be $52.9 billion in 2019.

23. Jim Walton, $53.2 Billion

Jim Walton is one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune — he’s the youngest son of Sam Walton — but he also joined the company’s real estate operations team in 1972 and proceeded to carve out his own accomplishments. In 2005, he replaced his older brother, John Walton, on the Walmart Board of Directors when he passed away.

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Walton reportedly owns more than 152 million Walmart shares worth more than $11 billion. In addition to his Walmart fortune, he is also the CEO of the family-owned Arvest Bank. It shouldn’t be surprising that Walton has a net worth of $53.2 billion.

22. Russell Sage, $53.6 Billion

Russell Sage (1816-1906) is still regarded as one of the smartest stock traders of all time. He pioneered a system of put and call options that is still used on Wall Street. Along with his partner, Jay Gould, Sage knew how to expertly buy and sell stock at predetermined prices.

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Sage saw the potential in the U.S. railroad system and secured stocks in western railroads. He also served as a director for American Cable Company, Western Union telegraph company and Union Pacific Railroad. His fortune would be worth $53.6 billion today.

21. Moses Taylor, $54.5 Billion

Moses Taylor (1806-1882) was worth about $70 million at the time of his death, making him one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century. The New York merchant and banker earned his wealth as the owner and controller of the National City Bank of New York (now known as Citibank).

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In addition to his bank investments, Taylor also owned the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. His Moses Taylor & Co. business invested solely in the railroad industry. In 2019, Taylor’s net worth would equal approximately $54.5 billion.

20. Steve Ballmer, $54.8 Billion

From 2000 to 2014, Steve Ballmer served as the Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, one of the leading technology developers, manufacturers and computer software services in the world. A Stanford University dropout, Ballmer was hired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

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Gates obviously recognized Ballmer’s potential as a businessman, and he certainly wasn’t wrong. Apart from Microsoft, Ballmer famously bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 for $2 billion, and he is still the team’s owner. With a net worth of $54.8 billion, he spends his time teaching business classes during his retirement.

19. Sam Walton, $56.5 Billion

Jim Walton may have made the list as one of the wealthiest men in American history, but that doesn’t mean you can forget his father, Sam Walton (1918-1992). The entrepreneur was responsible for the founding of retail giants Walmart and Sam’s Club.

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To this day, Walmart is still the world’s largest retailer and private employer, and the company has sustained its success because of Walton’s smart business methods. He worked hard to leave behind a legacy for his four children. In 2019, the entrepreneur’s net worth would be $56.5 billion.

18. Andrew Mellon, $63.2 Billion

Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) was one of the wealthiest bankers in American history. A member of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he wore many hats: banker, businessman, industrialist, philanthropist, art collector (donating 126 paintings to the National Gallery of Art) and politician. He knew how to keep himself busy.

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Mellon also served as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932. He favored policies that lowered taxation and national debt, and his investments allowed him to sustain his wealth. He would now have a net worth of $63.2 billion.

17. Warren Buffett, $63.8 Billion

When you think of the wealthiest businessmen in modern American history, Warren Buffett’s name probably comes to mind. He is one of the most successful investors in the world. As CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett owns many companies, including Heinz, Fruit of the Loom, Geico and the railroad BNSF.

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Buffett has championed higher taxes on the rich, and he plans to give most of his $63.8 billion fortune away to charities upon his death. The Oracle of Omaha (Nebraska) is known for his genius investments, and any aspiring investor should attempt to learn from him.

16. Henry Ford, $67.2 Billion

Henry Ford (1863-1947) will forever be associated with his famous Model-T car and his automobile business sense. Founder of the Ford Motor Company, he also sponsored the development of the assembly line technique for mass production systems. This allowed all kinds of goods to be produced at a fraction of the cost.

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Ford’s Model-T automobile was the first vehicle most middle-class Americans could afford. His business innovations established car dealerships throughout the United States. He left most of his wealth to the Ford Foundation when he died. In 2019, his wealth would equal $67.2 billion.

15. Mark Zuckerberg, $73.6 Billion

It’s hard to imagine any college student achieving as much success as Mark Zuckerberg did when he co-founded Facebook while studying at Harvard University. Originally, he intended for the social media website to help Ivy League students connect with each other, but it quickly attracted international attention.

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In addition to Facebook, Zuckerberg is also a philanthropist and donates portions of his profits to charitable organizations, including Start-up: Education, The Giving Pledge and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Zuckerberg has a total net worth value of $73.6 billion.

14. Bill Gates, $74 Billion

You know Bill Gates is rich, but just how wealthy is he? In 1975, he founded Microsoft Corporation with Paul Allen, and the money never stopped rolling in. Gates has served as chairman, CEO, president and chief software architect of the pioneering software corporation.

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Because of his savvy business models, Microsoft has dominated the computer industry for decades. Today, Gates spends most of his time working on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity that focuses on innovative global development and health resources. He is now worth a whopping $74 billion.

13. Marshall Field, $75 Billion

Marshall Field (1834-1906) was an expert entrepreneur and the founder of Marshall Field and Company Chicago-based department stores. The stores offered high-class quality and customer service. In fact, Field actually penned the famous retail quotes, "The customer is always right" and "Give the lady what she wants."

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Field pushed the limits on what could be offered in a department store. He invented store credit, return policy and in-store restaurants. His stores served as the model for popular chain stores that followed, including Macy’s. In 2019, Marshall would be worth $75 billion.

12. Jay Gould, $78.3 Billion

As a railroad executive and financier, Jay Gould (1836-1892) was a mastermind in the business world during the 19th century. He was active during the Industrial Revolution, when the railroad industry dominated the United States, and he also dominated in the gold market.

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Not surprisingly, Gould wasn’t exactly well-liked. He was known for his corrupt business practices, including stock watering and bribes. As a result, he had few friends and business partners and was shunned by society. Despite the disapproval, he had substantial wealth and would be worth $78.3 billion today.

11. Friedrich Weyerhäuser, $91.2 Billion

Friedrich Weyerhäuser (1834-1914) was a timber mogul and the owner of Weyerhaeuser Company, which operated sawmills, paper factories and other innovative businesses and owned large areas of forested land. Along with his family, Weyerhäuser reportedly controlled an area of land the size of Wisconsin.

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Weyerhäuser was known as the "timber-king of the Northwest." He owned and contributed many interests to other timber companies. Because he was an expert investor and businessman, he accumulated a net worth that would be an estimated $91.2 billion in 2019.

10. Charles and David Koch, $98 Billion

Charles and David Koch own Koch Industries, America’s second-largest, privately-owned business specializing in the oil and gas industries. Known as the Koch Brothers, the wealthy brothers assumed control of the business after the passing of their father, Fred Koch. The Koch Brothers have since proven they inherited their father’s smart business sense.

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Apart from Koch Industries, the brothers are also involved in politics. They built a political network of libertarian-conservative donors and contribute to many political causes. Together, they had a combined net worth of $98 billion, ranking them among the wealthiest businessmen in America. However, David Koch passed away in August 2019, which will likely alter the distribution of the fortune.

9. Alexander Turney Stewart, $100 Billion

Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876) operated one of the most successful wholesale and retail dry goods businesses during the 19th century. Known as A.T. Stewart, he founded the first department store, Marble Palace, in lower Manhattan on Broadway. It served as the model for how department stores would ultimately function.

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Stewart invented the concept of fixed pricing, which proved to be quite successful. He expanded his businesses (under A.T. Stewart & Co.) across the country. In 1863, his annual salary was an unbelievable $30 million, and his net worth in 2019 would be about $100 billion.

8. Stephen Van Rensselaer, $101 Billion

Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839) once controlled more than a million acres in New York. Active in politics, he served in the New York Assembly and New York Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. He also founded the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university.

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Rensselaer was a skilled member of the militia, leading 6,000 men during the War of 1812. He eventually divided his wealthy estate among his 10 children. In 2019, he would be worth $101 billion. That’s probably a fortune he never could have imagined.

7. Andrew Carnegie, $101 Billion

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) is one of the more recognizable names on our list. As the founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, he oversaw the expansion of America’s growing steel industry during the Industrial Revolution. He’s also famous for selling a large portion of his assets to J.P. Morgan.

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Carnegie knew how to capitalize on the booming steel market. He also established many non-profit organizations, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Corporation and nearly 3,000 public libraries. In 2019, he would have a net worth of $101 billion.

6. Richard B. Mellon, $103 Billion

Richard B. Mellon (1858-1933) changed the way bankers were involved in operations. Along with his brother, Andrew (also on our list), he founded Pittsburgh’s Mellon Bank. He became an investor, working with the Pittsburgh Coal Company and various steel, oil, coal and railroad companies, and he helped found Gulf Oil and the aluminum business Alcoa.

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Mellon’s philanthropic work included making generous donations to his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, and establishing a $15 million retirement fund for Presbyterian ministers. Today, his net worth would equal an impressive $103 billion.

5. Stephen Girard, $120 Billion

Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was a masterful businessman who owned an entire fleet of trading ships. He used his shipping money to become a financier in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he bought banks and loaned money to the U.S. government during the War of 1812.

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Girard’s skillful business practices are credited for saving the U.S. from economic collapse. Thanks to him, the country survived and kept thriving. Girard eventually donated much of his wealth to orphans, and he left an important legacy in Philadelphia. In 2019, his net worth would be around $120 billion.

4. John Jacob Astor, $138 Billion

Many wealthy men earned their fortune from real estate profits, including John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). He invested in numerous New York real estate ventures as well as the fur trade industry following the American Revolutionary War. As a result, he became the first multi-millionaire in the U.S.

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At one time, the Astor family owned about 700 properties in Manhattan and helped New York City grow into a booming city. Astor had more money than he knew what to do with, and he would probably be impressed that his net worth would come in at $138 billion today.

3. Jeff Bezos, $161 Billion

Who hasn’t used Amazon for online shopping? Founded in 1994 by businessman Jeff Bezos, the company began as an online bookstore but then expanded into the leading marketplace for online sales. Amazon is currently the world’s largest internet sales company, and we don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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He learned the art of business working on Wall Street, and he is now known as the "richest man in modern history." Forbes described him as "far richer than anyone else on the planet." Bezos has a net worth of $161 billion.

2. Cornelius Vanderbilt, $205 Billion

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) built his famous wealth in the railroad industry and by investing in steamships. Referred to as "The Commodore," Vanderbilt improved the country’s transportation system. His economic models helped define the 19th century. In 2019, his net worth would be an impressive $205 billion.

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Vanderbilt’s family continued their father’s success by building mansions on New York’s Park Avenue. They became socialites, and the Vanderbilt legacy lives on through Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Vanderbilts are an iconic American family throughout history, and it all started with their legendary patriarch.

1. John D. Rockefeller, $253 Billion

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) is iconic for all the right reasons. He found his calling in the oil industry. He standardized the quality of lamp oil and established the successful Standard Oil business. By 1880, Rockefeller dominated 90% of the country’s oil.

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Rockefeller became the country’s first billionaire and started many foundations in his name, including the Rockefeller Foundation. He also founded the University of Chicago. Many of today’s oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, are a part of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Today, he would be worth $253 billion.