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The Rockefellers | Timeline

The Rockefellers

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John D. Rockefeller sr. at age 16. Rockefeller Archives.

July 8, 1839
John Davison Rockefeller is born in Richford, upstate New York, to William Avery ("Bill") Rockefeller, a travelling peddler of novelties and "cures," and Eliza Davison Rockefeller, a devout Baptist.

Following allegations of rape, Bill Rockefeller moves his family to Owego, New York, close to the Pennsylvania border.

The Rockefeller family moves again, to Strongsville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, to the home of Bill Rockefeller's sister and brother-in-law.

Bill Rockefeller marries Margaret Allen, a woman 25 years his junior, beginning a secret life as a bigamist.

Under pressure from his father, John D. Rockefeller drops out of high school two months shy of commencement. He enters a professional school, where he studies double-entry bookkeeping, penmanship, banking, and commercial law.

September 26, 1855
At 16, Rockefeller gets his first job, working for Hewitt & Tuttle, commission merchants and produce shippers. He would celebrate "job day" the rest of his life.

Rockefeller starts keeping careful accounts of his finances in Ledger A, where he meticulously notes every receipt, expenditure and charitable donation.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species is published. The book's influence will be felt not only in science, but also in business and society at large.

August 28, 1859
Edwin Drake strikes oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, instigating an "Oil Rush" to the region.

Civil War begins. Rockefeller, like some other northern businessmen, hires substitutes to avoid fighting. The war at first disrupts industry, but ultimately it will accelerate economic development in the North, contributing to Rockefeller's meteoric ascent.

At 24, Rockefeller gets involved in the oil business, along with partners Maurice Clark and Samuel Andrews. Andrews, Clark & Co. builds a refinery in The Flats, Cleveland's burgeoning industrial area, which will soon be linked to the East Coast hubs by the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad.

September 8, 1864
Rockefeller marries Laura Celestia ("Cettie") Spelman in a small, private ceremony, following a nine-year courtship.

At 25, Rockefeller buys out his partners and founds Rockefeller & Andrews, Cleveland's largest refinery.

Laura gives birth to the Rockefellers' first child, Elizabeth ("Bessie").

Rockefeller strikes a major deal with a railroad, guaranteeing a certain volume of shipments in exchange for rebates. The first of many, this deal was made with Jay Gould, owner of the Erie Railroad.

The Rockefellers move to Euclid Avenue, Cleveland's "Millionaires' Row."

Rockefeller founds Standard Oil of Ohio with $1 million in capital, the largest corporation in the country. The new company controls 10 percent of U.S. petroleum refining.

Laura gives birth to Alta.

Rockefeller is tainted by the scandal surrounding the South Improvement Company scheme, a secret alliance between major refiners and the railroads. However, he uses the scheme to persuade other Cleveland refiners to sell out to Standard Oil. Following the so-called "Cleveland Massacre," Rockefeller owns 22 of the 26 refineries in town.

Laura gives birth to Edith.

September 18, 1873
"Black Thursday." The stock exchange crash sets off a depression that will last six years. Standard Oil takes advantage of the economic downturn to absorb refineries in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Pennsylvania's Oil Region.

January 29, 1874
Laura gives birth to JohnD. Jr.

At 38, Rockefeller -- still relatively unknown to the public -- controls almost 90 percent of the oil refined in the United States.

At 40, Rockefeller is numbered among the country's 20 richest men.

Standard Oil expands into the overseas markets of Western Europe and Asia, selling more oil abroad than in the U.S.

Atlantic Monthly publishes "Story of a Great Monopoly," by Henry Demarest Lloyd. The article's critical view of Standard Oil strikes a chord with readers. Lloyd's book-length study of Standard Oil, "Wealth against Commonwealth," appears in 1894.

Standard Oil trust is formed. Rockefeller creates a highly centralized structure with enormous power but murky legal existence.

Standard Oil builds up its distribution system, streamlining the delivery and sale of oil and underselling its adversaries.

The Rockefellers move to New York and build a mansion at 4 West 54th Street.

Standard Oil moves into new headquarters at 26 Broadway in New York. The address will become synonymous with Rockefeller's business empire.

At age 13, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., suffers a nervous collapse due to "overwork." He spends the winter at the family's country house, healing through hard physical work.

Amid growing anti-monopoly sentiment, economic concentration becomes an issue in the presidential campaign. Both parties condemn it.

A New York Senate committee launches an investigation into Standard Oil. Rockefeller is called to the witness stand, and gives evasive testimony.

Eliza, Rockefeller's mother, dies at age 76. Her estranged husband does not attend the ceremony. Rockefeller asks the minister to say that she was a widow.

Rockefeller agrees to contribute to the founding of a new Baptist college in Chicago. The University of Chicago will become his first major philanthropic undertaking.

Andrew Carnegie publishes "The Gospel of Wealth," arguing that the wealthy have a moral obligation to serve as stewards for society.

Coinciding with a stressful period, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., develops alopecia, a rare condition that results in the loss of all his body hair.

Standard Oil attains its peak influence. Its dividends surge to 31 percent and its control of the market is uncontested.

Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlaws trusts and combinations in restraint of trade and establishes fines for violators. The law remains in effect today.

 Frederick Gates, a former Baptist minister, starts working for Rockefeller as a philanthropic administrator. Gates helps make Rockefeller's philanthropy more efficient.

The stock market crashes, setting off the country's first great industrial depression. Bank closings and massive unemployment heighten social tension.

The World's Columbian Exposition takes place in Chicago. The Rockefellers attend.

Rockefeller buys 400 acres in the Pocantico Hills of Mount Pleasant, New York, on the Hudson River. He keeps the modest house that came with the property. The estate will eventually expand to 3,000 acres.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., enters Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Edith marries Harold McCormick, the son of Chicago millionaire Cyrus McCormick, the developer of the mechanical reaper.

Rockefeller decides to retire from Standard Oil, gradually and secretly, in a move designed to keep the press and the public in the dark.

Henry Ford assembles the first automobile. Just as electricity is starting to replace kerosene as an illuminant, gasoline enters the scene, creating a rising demand for oil.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., starts working at 26 Broadway. During the first few years, his role there will be marginal and ill defined.

Standard Oil contributes $250,000 to Republican William McKinley's presidential campaign against Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a supporter of antitrust legislation. The candidates' opposing views about trusts polarize public opinion on the issue.

Between 1898 and 1902, many follow the Rockefeller business model; 198 trusts are created in coal, sugar, and other industries.

J. P. Morgan purchases Carnegie Steel from Andrew Carnegie, leading to the creation of U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation and a landmark in business consolidation.

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research is created. The institute, called Rockefeller University today, will become a leader in the new field of experimental medicine.

September 1901
An anarchist assassinates President McKinley. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president. His vehement antitrust rhetoric will target corporations such as Standard Oil.

October 9, 1901
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Aldrich are wed at Warwick Estate in Rhode Island. One thousand guests attend.

The General Education Board is created by the Rockefellers to promote education in the South without distinction of race.

November 1902
McClure's Magazine runs the first of 19 installments on the history of Standard Oil, written by muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell.

Abby gives birth to daughter "Babs" (Abby), dubbed "the richest of all babies" in the press.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., decides to build a mansion at his Pocantico estate. It will take numerous changes and revisions, and eight years of construction, for Kykuit (Dutch for "lookout") to be completed.

Rockefeller and Carnegie are perceived by the press as being locked in competition over the extent of their philanthropic giving.

Abby gives birth to John D. III.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s, father, Bill Rockefeller, dies at age 96.

President Roosevelt's attacks on Rockefeller and Standard Oil escalate. Rockefeller is singled out as one of the "malefactors of great wealth." Anti-Rockefeller sentiment is at an all-time high.

After years of heart problems, John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s, eldest daughter Bessie dies at age 40.

The U.S. government has seven different suits pending against Standard Oil. The lawsuits argue that Standard Oil is more than 20 times the size of its closest competitor.

William Randolph Hearst's the World publishes a cover story revealing the "Secret Double Life of Rockefeller's Father," revealing Bill Rockefeller's bigamy.

The U.S. government launches its largest antitrust suit to date, targeting Standard Oil.

Rockefeller finances a campaign to fight hookworm in the South. By 1927 the disease will be eradicated.

July 8, 1908
Abby gives birth to Nelson, on his grandfather John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s, birthday.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., leaves Standard Oil to devote himself to philanthropy. He is named foreman of New York's White Slavery Special Jury to investigate the traffic in young women forced into prostitution.

Abby gives birth to Laurance.

May 15, 1911
The U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision to dismantle Standard Oil. The company is ordered to divest itself of its subsidiaries within six months.

Abby gives birth to Winthrop.

Edith travels to Zurich seeking treatment for depression with Swiss clinical and experimental psychiatrist Carl Jung.

Rockefeller Foundation is incorporated "to promote the wellbeing of mankind throughout the world." Rockefeller gives the foundation $100 million in its first year.

Rockefeller's wealth reaches its lifetime peak of $900 million, thanks in part to the dismantling of Standard Oil. Newspapers run daily box scores of his wealth.

September 26, 1913
A United Mine Workers strike begins in Southern Colorado. Nine thousand workers of the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron, the largest mining operation in the area, go out on strike. Miners and their families are evicted, and they set up massive tent colonies.

April-May 1914
Writer and activist Upton Sinclair stages anti-Rockefeller demonstrations. Protesters descend on Kykuit. Several "Wobblies," members of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World union, are killed when a bomb possibly aimed at John D. Rockefeller, Jr., goes off.

April 6, 1914
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., testifies before the House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining regarding the miners' strike. He upholds the principle of the open shop and reiterates his support for Colorado Fuel & Iron management.

April 20, 1914
The Ludlow Massacre. At least 24 miners die, among them two women and 11 children, in a 14-hour confrontation between miners and the National Guard. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., denies any responsibility.

April 30, 1914
President Wilson sends federal troops to curb an outbreak of violence in tent camps in Colorado.

August 1914
World War I begins. The Rockefellers donate millions to international relief agencies.

December 1914
The United Mine Workers union agrees to call off its strike without having achieved its goals.

January 25, 1915
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., testifies before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. He softens his position on labor unions and vows to improve the situation at Ludlow.

March 1915
Laura ("Cettie") Spelman Rockefeller dies at age 75.

August 1915
Abby gives birth to David.

September 1915
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his advisor MacKenzie King tour Ludlow and meet the miners in a well-publicized visit.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., begins to transfer his wealth. His son John D. Rockefeller, Jr., will be the main beneficiary.

President Wilson sets aside Mount Desert Island, Maine, as a national park. Over the next decade, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., will donate 11,000 acres to what will eventually become Acadia National Park.

Edith returns to the United States after an eight-year stay in Switzerland.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., checks in to Kellogg Battle Creek Sanitarium, complaining of exhaustion and migraines.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., offers to purchase the Barnard Cloisters, a medieval museum in upper Manhattan, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., launches the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.

October 1929
The stock market crashes. The crash cripples the national economy and wipes out more than half of the Rockefeller fortune.

November 1929
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opens in New York City. Abby is one of its co-founders, with friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan.

After six years of construction, Riverside Church, underwritten with $26 million of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s, money, opens in New York City.

Nelson marries Mary Todhunter Clark, just a few days after graduating from Dartmouth College.

Construction of the 14-building Rockefeller Center complex begins during the Great Depression. Over the next eight years, the massive project will provide employment for 75,000 workers.

Charles Lindbergh's son is kidnapped. The case makes America's wealthy families especially security conscious.

Edith dies of cancer at age 60. Two thousand people gather outside her mansion to pay their respects.

Mexican artist Diego Rivera, hired to paint a mural for Rockefeller Center, is dismissed after refusing to replace the face of Lenin. Despite protests, his mural will be destroyed less than a year later.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., dies, three years short of his goal of 100 years. A simple funeral is held at Riverside Church. At offices, refineries and companies that had once comprised Standard Oil, work stops for five minutes.

Nelson is named president of Rockefeller Center.

World War II begins.

President Franklin Roosevelt names Nelson Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, to stem Nazi influence in Latin America.

Pearl Harbor is bombed. The U.S. enters the war.

President Roosevelt signs a proclamation establishing Jackson Hole National Monument in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming, following two decades of behind-the-scenes lobbying by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Winthrop, who had enlisted in the Army in 1941, survives a Japanese kamikaze bombing of his troop transport ship.

After the war, the Rockefeller brothers of the third generation (John D. III, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David) return to the family office at Rockefeller Center, eager to define their individual roles.

The Rockefellers offer the United Nations a tract of land on their Pocantico estate as a site for its headquarters. When that plan falls through, Nelson persuades John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to purchase land on New York City's East River and donate it to the United Nations.

Winthrop marries a divorcée, Barbara "Bobo" Sears. The couple will divorce two years later.

Abby dies at age 74.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sells Rockefeller Center to his sons.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., marries Martha Baird Allen, the widow of an old friend and college classmate.

Winthrop moves to Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the country.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sells the Pocantico family estate to his sons and begins the final disposition of his fortune, giving $73 million to charity and $57 million to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Eisenhower is elected. A few months later, Nelson joins his administration.

Nelson plays a pivotal role in the Eisenhower-Krushchev summit in Geneva. Along with Henry Kissinger, he orchestrates the proposal for mutual aerial inspection of Soviet and U.S. military establishments, dubbed "open skies."

Nelson resigns from the Eisenhower administration and returns to assume chairmanship of Rockefeller Center.

Nelson enters New York's gubernatorial campaign as a Republican. He runs a dynamic campaign and beats the Democratic opponent by more than 500,000 votes.

Lincoln Center groundbreaking. John D. Rockefeller III is the leading fundraiser for the construction of New York's ambitious new complex of facilities for the performing arts.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., dies at age 86.

Nelson embarks on a brief run for the Republican Party nomination for president, but loses to Richard M. Nixon.

Nelson announces that he is divorcing his wife of 30 years. Two days later, he receives news that his son Michael has disappeared in New Guinea while conducting anthropological research. Michael's body will never be found.

Nelson is easily re-elected to a second term as governor of New York.

After his defeat in the California gubernatorial campaign, Nixon announces that he is withdrawing from politics.

May 1963
Nelson marries Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, the former wife of a family friend. The wedding jeopardizes his presidential aspirations.

November 1963
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.

Nelson decides to run for president.

Construction begins on the South Mall in Albany, New York, a billion-dollar government complex for the State Capitol.

The spring Republican Party primaries pit Barry Goldwater against Nelson, resulting in a combative campaign.

June 1964
Happy gives birth to the couple's first son on the eve of the decisive California primary. Goldwater defeats Nelson by a slim margin.

November 1964
Lyndon Baines Johnson is elected president, defeating Goldwater with 61 percent of the popular vote.

Nelson is re-elected to a third term as governor of New York.

Winthrop is elected governor of Arkansas. He will serve two terms.

April 1968
Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated.

On the 30th, after President Johnson's withdrawal from the race, Nelson decides to enter the Republican primaries. He will lose the nomination to Nixon.

June 1968
Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated.

Nelson is re-elected to a fourth term as governor of New York.

September 1971
Nelson refuses to negotiate with the inmates during a prisoners' revolt at the maximum-security Attica State Penitentiary in upstate New York. The incident culminates in a major assault by the state police, resulting in the death of 10 hostages and 29 inmates.

Nelson proposes harsh drug laws to the New York State legislature that call for lengthy prison sentences for petty crimes.

Winthrop dies of cancer at age 60.

Nelson announces his resignation from the governorship.

In the wake of Watergate, President Nixon is forced to resign. President Gerald Ford nominates Nelson to be vice president. After grueling confirmation hearings that focus on the Rockefellers' wealth, Vice President Rockefeller is sworn in.

President Ford chooses Bob Dole over Nelson as running mate.

David Horowitz and Peter Collier publish The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty. The book airs the fourth generation's grievances, causing a split in the family.

"Babs" dies of cancer at age 72.

Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate, is designated a National Historic Landmark. It will open to the public in 1994.

John D. III dies in a car accident at age 72.

January 1979
Nelson dies of a massive heart attack at age 70 under scandalous circumstances, while in the company of a young female assistant.

Rockefeller Center is designated a National Historic Landmark.

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