6 Robber Barons From America's Past

Political Cartoon of a Robber Baron, Edward H. Harriman, with the railroads of America all heading toward his mouth. The caption reads 'Design for a Union Station.'
Political Cartoon of a Robber Baron, Edward H. Harriman, with the railroads of America all heading toward his mouth. The caption reads 'Design for a Union Station.'. Library of Congress

Corporate greed is nothing new in America. Anyone who has been the victim of restructuring, hostile takeovers, and other downsizing efforts can attest to this. In fact, some might say that the country was built on it. The term Robber Baron refers to individuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s who earned enormous amounts of money through often highly questionable practices. Some of these individuals were also philanthropists, especially upon retirement. However, the fact that they gave money out later in life did not affect their inclusion in this list. 

01
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John D. Rockefeller

Circa 1930: American Industrialist, John Davison Rockefeller (1839 - 1937)
Circa 1930: American Industrialist, John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937). General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty Images

Rockefeller is considered by most people to be the wealthiest man in American History. He created the Standard Oil Company in 1870 along with partners including his brother William, Samuel Andrews, Henry Flagler, Jabez A. Bostwick, and Stephen V. Harkness. Rockefeller ran the company until 1897.

At one point, his company controlled around 90% of all available oil in the US. He was able to do this by buying up less efficient operations and buying out rivals to add them to the fold. He used many unfair practices to help his company grow, including at one time participating in a cartel that resulted in deep discounts for his company to ship oil cheaply while charging much higher prices to competitors.

His company grew vertically and horizontally and was soon attacked as a monopoly. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was key in the beginning of busting the trust. In 1904, muckraker Ida M. Tarbell published "The History of Standard Oil Company" showing the abuses of power the company waged. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court found the company in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered its breakup.

02
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Andrew Carnegie

Vintage American history photo of Andrew Carnegie seated in a library.
Vintage American history photo of Andrew Carnegie seated in a library. John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Carnegie is a contradiction in many ways. He was a key player in the creation of the steel industry, growing his own wealth in the process before giving it away later in life. He worked his way up from bobbin boy to becoming a steel magnate.

He was able to amass his fortune by owning all aspects of manufacturing process. However, he was not always the best to his workers, despite preaching that they should have the right to unionize. In fact, he decided to lower wages of plant workers in 1892 leading to the Homestead Strike. Violence erupted after the company hired guards to break up the strikers which resulted in a number of deaths. However, Carnegie decided to retire at age 65 to help others by opening libraries and investing in education.

03
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John Pierpont Morgan

John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan (1837-1913), the American financier. He was responsible for much industrial growth in the United States, including the formation of the U.S. Steel Corporation and the reorganization of major railroads. In his later years he collected art and books, and made major donations to museums and libraries
John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan (1837-1913), the American financier. He was responsible for much industrial growth in the United States, including the formation of the U.S. Steel Corporation and the reorganization of major railroads. In his later years he collected art and books, and made major donations to museums and libraries. Corbis Historical / Getty IMages

John Pierpont Morgan was known for reorganizing a number of major railroads along with consolidating General Electric, International Harvester, and US Steel.

He was born into wealth and started working for his father's banking company. He then became a partner in the business that would become a key U.S. government financier. By 1895, the company was renamed J.P. Morgan and Company, soon becoming one of the wealthiest and most powerful banking companies in the world. He became involved in the railroads in 1885, reorganizing a number of them. After the Panic of 1893, he was able to gain enough railroad stock to become one of the largest railroad owners in the world. His company was even able to help during the depression by providing millions of gold to the Treasury.

In 1891, he arranged for the creation of General Electric and the merger into US Steel. In 1902, he brought the merger leading to International Harvester to fruition. He was also able to gain financial control of a number of insurance companies and banks.

04
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Cornelius Vanderbilt

'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the oldest and most reckless of financial buccaneers of his day. The commodore built up the New York Central Railroad.
'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the oldest and most reckless of financial buccaneers of his day. The commodore built up the New York Central Railroad. Bettmann / Getty Images

Vanderbilt was a shipping and railroad tycoon who built himself up from nothing to become one of the wealthiest individuals in 19th century America. He was the first individual who was referred to using the term robber baron in an article in The New York Times on February 9, 1859.

He worked his way up through the shipping industry before going into business for himself, becoming one of America's biggest steamship operators. His reputation as being a ruthless competitor grew as his wealth did. By the 1860s, he decided to move into the railroad industry. As an example of his ruthlessness, when he was trying to acquire New York Central railroad company, he would not allow their passengers or freight on his own New York & Harlem and Hudson Lines. This meant that they were unable to connect to cities out west. Central Railroad was thus forced to sell him controlling interest. He would eventually control all railroads from New York City to Chicago. By the time of his death, he had amassed over $100 million.

05
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Jay Gould and James Fisk

James Fisk (left) and Jay Gould (seated right) plotting the Great Gold Ring of 1869. Engraving.
James Fisk (left) and Jay Gould (seated right) plotting the Great Gold Ring of 1869. Engraving. Bettmann / Getty Images

Gould began working as a surveyor and tanner before purchasing stock in railroad. He would soon manage the Rennsalaer and Saratoga Railway along with others. As one of the directors of the Erie Railroad, he was able to cement his reputation as a robber baron. He worked with a number of allies including James Fisk, who is also on this list, to fight against Cornelius Vanderbilt's acquisition of the Erie Railroad. He used a number of unethical methods including bribery and artificially driving up stock prices.

James Fisk was a New York City stockbroker who helped financiers as they purchased their businesses. He helped Daniel Drew during the Erie War as they fought to gain control of the Erie Railroad. Working together to fight against Vanderbilt resulted in Fisk becoming friends with Jay Gould and working together as directors of the Erie Railroad. In fact, together they were able to garner control of the enterprise.

Fisk and Gould worked together to build alliances with such underhanded individuals as Boss Tweed. They also bought judges and bribed individuals in the state and federal legislatures.

Though many investors were ruined, Fisk and Gould escaped significant financial harm.

In 1869, he and Fisk would go down in history for attempting to corner the gold market. They had even gotten President Ulysses S. Grant's brother-in-law Abel Rathbone Corbin involved to try to get access to the president himself. They had also bribed the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Daniel Butterfield, for insider information. However, their scheme was finally revealed. President Grant released gold to the market once he learned about their actions on Black Friday, September 24, 1869. Many gold investors lost everything and the US economy was seriously harmed for months afterward. However, both Fisk and Gould were able to escape unharmed financially and were never held accountable.

Gould would in later years buy control of the Union Pacific railroad out west. He would sell his interest for massive profits, investing in other railroads, newspapers, telegraph companies, and more.

Fisk was murdered in 1872 when a former lover, Josie Mansfield, and a former business partner, Edwards Stokes, tried to extort money from Fisk. He refused to pay leading to a confrontation where Stokes shot and killed him.

06
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Russell Sage

Portrait of Russell Sage (1816-1906), wealthy financier and congressman from Troy, New York.
Portrait of Russell Sage (1816-1906), wealthy financier and congressman from Troy, New York. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Also known as "The Sage of Troy," Russell Sage was a banker, railroad builder and executive, and Whig Politician in the mid-1800s. He was charged with violating usury laws because of the high rate of interest he charged on loans.

He bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1874. He also invested in railroads, becoming the president of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway. Like James Fisk, he became friends with Jay Gould through their partnerships in various railroad lines. He was a director in numerous companies including Western Union and the Union Pacific Railroad.

In 1891, he survived an attempted assassination. However, he cemented his reputation as a miser when he wouldn't pay the reward of a lawsuit to the clerk, William Laidlaw, whom he used as a shield to protect himself and who ended up being disabled for life.

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Kelly, Martin. "6 Robber Barons From America's Past." ThoughtCo, Jan. 19, 2018, thoughtco.com/robber-barons-from-americas-past-4120060. Kelly, Martin. (2018, January 19). 6 Robber Barons From America's Past. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/robber-barons-from-americas-past-4120060 Kelly, Martin. "6 Robber Barons From America's Past." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/robber-barons-from-americas-past-4120060 (accessed January 23, 2018).