Rockefeller, John D. (John Davison), 1839-1937

Alternative names
Birth 1839-07-08
Death 1937-05-23

Biographical notes:

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was born in Richford, New York to William Avery Rockefeller and Eliza Davison. In 1853, he moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio where he studied bookkeeping. With partner Maurice B. Clark, Rockefeller built an oil refinery in 1863 and bought out his partner two years later. In 1864, he married Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman, with whom he had four children. Two years later, Rockefeller joined his brother William to establish Rockefeller, Andrews, & Flagler, which was at that time the largest oil refinery in the world. In 1870, Rockefeller’s company was renamed Standard Oil, and incorporated numerous competing oil competitors throughout the 1870s. In order to more efficiently manage his growing business interests, Rockefeller became the founder, chairman and major shareholder of Standard Oil Trust, a conglomerate of forty-one separate companies. Standard Oil’s nearly complete control of oil refining and marketing by the end of the 1870s resulted in accusations of monopoly and the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission and Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Rockefeller was an active philanthropist, who gave regularly causes relating to higher education, including the establishment of Spelman College and the University of Chicago; medical science; and the Northern Baptist Church. In 1913, he created the Rockefeller Foundation, a private philanthropic organization.

Source: John D. Rockefeller Biography. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Accessed August 1, 2011.

From the guide to the John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Collection 2011-151., 1908-1923, (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin)

John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company and the Rockefeller family fortune, was born in Richford, N.Y., on July 8, 1839. The family settled in Cleveland, Oh., in 1853. Ten years later, the Atlantic & Great Western Railway linked Cleveland with the rapidly-developing Oil Region of Pennsylvania, and many refineries were established in the city.

Rockefeller, then a young commission merchant, joined in establishing the Excelsior Refinery in 1863. Two years later he bought out his partners and made his refinery the largest in Cleveland. A second refinery soon followed, and Rockefeller sent his brother William to New York to develop the eastern and export trade.

The oil business at this time was characterized by extreme fragmentation and extreme competition among producers, refiners and transporters. Rockefeller recast the industry in his own image, absorbing his talented competitors and crushing the recalcitrant, winning concessions from the oil-carrying railroads and building pipelines, innovating and cutting costs. The business was incorporated as the Standard Oil Company (Ohio) on January 10, 1870. By 1875, Standard controlled over half the country's refining capacity. By 1879 it had practically monopolized the industry and was extending its integration backward by acquiring oil reserves and forward into marketing.

To manage this rapidly expanding empire, Standard Oil devloped the "trust" form of organization in 1881. The stocks of all the firms in the combination except Standard Oil itself were pooled and managed by a board of nine trustees. The headquarters was moved to New York City in 1883-84. The aggressive expansion and ruthless efficiency of Standard Oil were a prime factor in the development of the antitrust movement after 1880. The Standard Oil Trust was invalidated by the Ohio courts in 1892. Standard Oil continued to operate as before by a system of interlocking directories, until an overarching holding company, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, was incorporated in 1899. Standard Oil was eventually broken up into several competing companies by federal suit in 1911.

By 1897 Rockefeller had retired from active management of Standard Oil. Between 1885 and 1910 he gradually turned to philanthropy, transforming it through his organizational skills as he had transformed the oil industry. Many of his benefactions were connected to the Baptist Church, of which he was a member. He founded the University of Chicago (1889), the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1901), the General Education Board (1902), and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). He died in Ormond, Fla., on May 23, 1937.

From the description of John D. Rockefeller interview, 1917-1920 [combined text-microfiche ed.]. (Hagley Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 164038117


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  • Competition
  • Pipelines
  • Capitalists and financiers
  • Industrial concentration
  • Petroleum--Pipelines
  • Industrialists--Biography
  • Petroleum refineries
  • Tank cars
  • Petroleum industry and trade--History
  • Philanthropists
  • Petroleum--Transportation
  • Trusts, Industrial
  • Consolidation and merger of corporations


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  • United States (as recorded)