Humanities › History & Culture 6 Robber Barons From America's Past Share Flipboard Email Print 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 History & Culture American History Basics Important Historical Figures Key Events U.S. Presidents Native American History American Revolution America Moves Westward The Gilded Age Crimes & Disasters The Most Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Martin Kelly History Expert M.A., History, University of Florida B.A., History, University of Florida Martin Kelly, M.A., is a history teacher and curriculum developer. He is the author of "The Everything American Presidents Book" and "Colonial Life: Government." our editorial process Martin Kelly Updated August 12, 2019 The term Robber Baron refers to individuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, U.S. financiers who earned enormous amounts of money through often highly questionable practices. 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. Nevertheless, some say that the country was built on the efforts of people like the men on this list, all of whom were citizens of the United States. Some of the 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 of 06 John D. Rockefeller Circa 1930: American Industrialist, John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937). General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty Images John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) 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 of 06 Andrew Carnegie Vintage American history photo of Andrew Carnegie seated in a library. John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) 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 the manufacturing process. However, he was not always the best employer 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 over 2,000 libraries and otherwise investing in education. 03 of 06 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. Corbis Historical / Getty IMages John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) 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, Morgan 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 of 06 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. Bettmann / Getty Images Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) 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 person to be called robber baron, in an article in "The New York Times" on February 9, 1859. Vanderbilt 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. In this manner, Central Railroad was forced to sell him controlling interest. Vanderbilt would eventually control all railroads from New York City to Chicago. By the time of his death, he had amassed over $100 million. 05 of 06 Jay Gould and James Fisk James Fisk (left) and Jay Gould (seated right) plotting the Great Gold Ring of 1869. Engraving. Bettmann / Getty Images Jay Gould (1836–1892) 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 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 (1835–1872) 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 their working together as directors of the Erie Railroad. Together, Gould and Fisk were able to garner control of the enterprise. Fisk and Gould also 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 by their machinations, Fisk and Gould escaped significant financial harm. In 1869, he and Fisk went down in history when they attempted 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 U.S. 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 of 06 Russell Sage 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 (1816–1906) 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. Sources and Further Reading Fleck, Christian. "A Transatlantic History of the Social Sciences: Robber Barons, the Third Reich and the Invention of Empirical Social Research." Transl., Beister, Hella. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011. Josephson, Matthew. "The Robber Barons: The Classic Account of the Influential Capitalists Who Transformed America's Future." San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc., 1962. Renehan, Edward Jr. "Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons." New York: Perseus Books, 2005.