This is the twelveth in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)
Post #12: John D. Rockefeller Grows Up Poor
John Davison Rockefeller was born on July 8 of 1839 in Richford, NY. At the time of his birth, railroad trains had been operating in the US for about eight years. JP Morgan was two years old, Andrew Carnegie was not yet four, and forty-five year old Cornelius Vanderbilt was operating a fleet of steamboats in and around Long Island Sound. William Ford, future father of Henry, had been in the United States for three years and was still unmarried and struggling to make a living.
Rockefeller’s father was a handsome, charming, and utterly unscrupulous criminal named William A. “Devil Bill” Rockefeller. His mother was a God-fearing Baptist named Eliza (formally Eliza Davison) who had fallen for Devil Bill’s charm and married him against her father’s wishes at age seventeen. John was the second of Eliza’s five children; and one of at least seven children William is known to have fathered.
The financial difficulties the Rockefeller family suffered during John’s childhood were not caused by any lack of earning power on William’s part; the elder Rockefeller had a knack for separating honest and trusting people from their money, and he always lived well. The family’s problem was that their provider was mercurial and selfish.
William would disappear for weeks or months at a time, leaving his wife without a dime and instructing her to buy the things her children needed on credit. He would travel far, peddling fake cancer cures to gullible farmers and small town folk. He was a gifted showman as well as a clever liar. He owned several fine rifles and practiced constantly to keep up his skills. When arriving in a new town he would often attract attention to his medicine show with a demonstration of marksmanship. He always dressed well and wore diamond jewelry.
When he returned from his wanderings he would pull out a fat role of bills and pay off his family’s account at the local store. During his absences Eliza would live as frugally as possible, not wishing to over-tax the trust of storekeepers who could never really know when or whether Devil Bill would return again.
A Rockefeller neighbor quoted in Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller said that John and the other children were “pitiably neglected.” “Their clothing was old and tattered,” said the neighbor, “and they looked dirty and hungry.” On at least one occasion a charitable neighbor had to donate money to pay for the childrens’ school books.
In 1852 John and his younger brother were enrolled in a school called the Owego Academy, where most of the students came from more prosperous families. During the year the school hired a photographer, but excluded the Rockefeller boys from the class picture because they were too poorly dressed. John, always positive in his attitude, chose not to be angry or resentful. He kept the photograph for the rest of his life. “In Eliza Rockefeller’s household,” according to Chernow, “one didn’t morbidly dwell on slights but kept one’s sights fixed on the practical goals ahead.”
Transportati0n and communications in the 1840’s and 50’s were primitive, and by traveling from town to town William could always find gullible people who knew nothing about him. These simple honest country folk would be the customers for his patent medicines. For much the same reason he tended to move his home and family from one town to another on a regular basis. Whenever the Rockefellers moved to a new town William would be respected and popular for a while, until the locals got to know him too well and he wore out his welcome.
There were accusations that William was involved in a gang of horse theives in one town, and on another occasion he was actually indicted (but not tried, for some reason) for rape. When the locals learned to see through Devil Bill’s act it would be time to move on again. All of this made for a turbulent childhood. John D. Rockefeller and his family lived in nine different houses by the time he dropped out of high school at fifteen.
William Rockefeller would frequently use an assumed name while traveling around peddling his quack medicines, and in 1855 he signed the name “William Levingston” on the marriage licence he used when he married a teenage girl named Margaret Allen. The new Mrs. Levingston had no idea that her groom was already married, nor that his real name was Rockefeller. Eliza and the children were living in Cleveland by this time and Margaret’s home was in Ontario. William managed to keep his wives ignorant of each other’s existence for many years, although Eliza’s feelings became a moot point for William when he abandoned her for good a couple years later.
The sources of stability in John D’s childhood were his mother and his Christian faith. Eliza was tireless in protecting and caring for her children. She’d made the great mistake of her life at seventeen, and she endured her disfunctional marraige without wasting much time on self-pity. She stretched her meager financial resources during William’s absences, made the best of it while he was around, and did everything in her power to prepare her children for a better life.
Eliza’s love was tough love. She made sure her children grew up with the self-discipline her husband so notoriously lacked. John D’s rare misdeeds were swiftly corrected with a hickory switch. As the eldest boy he quickly earned his mother’s confidence and began to serve as a father figure for the younger children. As he grew he learned to value principles like honesty, loyalty, and promise-keeping; things that were clearly of no consequence to Devil Bill.
In some sense John D and his father had reversed roles in the family. When William was home he acted more like a big brother than a father. He left the whole issue of discipline to his wife and taught the kids how to ride and shoot, took them fishing, and regaled them with stories of his travels.
Both parents played important role’s in John D Rockefeller’s early education. Eliza taught him good values and principles, and Devil Bill taught him all about shrewd business dealings. Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” and young Rockefeller seems to have been able to follow that principle with his father’s dishonest ways. He made the best of the time he was able to spend with William, enjoying the fun and games without ever starting to emulate the bad behavior.
The things Devil Bill said and did provided good training for John D’s career in the cutthroat business world of the late nineteenth century. John D never cheated in his business dealings, but it’s interesting to note that no one was ever able to cheated him, either. Brilliant businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie were taken in by unscrupulous partners or rivals on occasion, but John D. Rockefeller never was.
The other great influence in young Rockefeller’s life was the church. He was “drawn to the church,” according to Chernow, “not as some nagging duty or obligation but as something deeply refreshing to the soul.” His commitment to Christian charity started with his mother giving him pennies to put in the offering jar during Sunday services. While the family was living in Moravia, New York a Presbyterian neighbor would often drop Eliza and the children off at their Baptist church on the way to his own service on a Sunday morning.
When John D. was around fifteen years old he fell in love with a girl named Melinda Miller. Melinda’s parents quickly broke up the relationship. Chernow expressed the irony of her parents’ decision in his biography: “In one of the less prophetic judgements in parental history, they argued that they didn’t want their daughter to throw herself away on a young man with such poor prospects.” After the break-up with Melinda, Rockefeller’s love life would remain on the back burner for several years as he finished his education and focused all his energies on building a career.
In May of 1855, at the age of fifteen, John D. dropped out of high school to take a three-month vocational course in bookkeeping. When he finished the course he went looking for a job.
Next week’s post will cover John D. Rockefeller’s early career in Cleveland.
Anyone who wants to receive these posts by e-mail is welcome to click the “Subscribe” button on the right-hand side of this page. There is no charge for a subscription.