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John Jacob Astor. Oil on canvas, c. 1825, by John Wesley Jarvis. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Susan Mary Alsop.

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Astor, John Jacob (17 July 1763–29 March 1848), fur trader and financier, was born in Waldorf, duchy of Baden, Germany, the son of Jacob Astor, a butcher, and Maria Magdalena Vorfelder, who died when John was about three. His family was of the artisan class, and few records survive from his youth. Due in large part to a fine town schoolmaster, Astor’s education seems to have been better than average. It ended at age thirteen with his confirmation in the Lutheran church. At an age when many contemporaries became apprentices, Astor spent two years as an assistant in his father’s butcher shop but had little interest in learning the business....

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Bingham, William (08 April 1752–07 February 1804), businessman and public official, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of William Bingham, a saddler and merchant, and Mary “Molly” Stamper. Bingham graduated cum laude from the College of Philadelphia in 1768. Sometime after the death of his father in 1769, he served an apprenticeship with Philadelphia merchant ...

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Brown, Alexander (17 November 1764–04 April 1834), founder of an Anglo-American mercantile and financial services firm, was born in Ballymena, Ireland, the son of William Brown and Margaretta Davison. As a young adult he moved to Belfast, where he became involved in the linen trade, reportedly working as an auctioneer on occasion. His brother Stewart left for Baltimore in the mid-1790s, and Alexander followed in 1800. He had married Grace Davison in 1783, and after his arrival in Baltimore he opened a shop that featured linen goods supplied primarily by his in-laws and business associates in Ireland. The mercantile business prospered, and Brown soon widened the scope of his activities. He typified the all-purpose merchant of the early national era (c. 1790–1820), dabbling in various goods and services, including insurance and shipping. When his second son, ...

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Chouteau, Pierre, Jr. (19 January 1789–06 September 1865), merchant and financier, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Jean Pierre Chouteau, a trader and Indian agent, and Pelagie Kiersereau. He was familiarly known as Cadet, meaning second son. The Chouteaus were the most prominent family in St. Louis, the original founders of the town, and the very heart of its business and social life. Pierre Chouteau, Jr., gained only a rudimentary academic education in this frontier town, learning to speak and read English in addition to his native French. More important, he apprenticed in the fur trade from the age of fifteen on, learning the business that was the economic foundation of St. Louis and the best chance for profits on the early western frontier....

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Fair, James Graham (03 December 1831–28 December 1894), miner, financier, and U.S. senator, was born near Belfast, Ireland, the son of Scotch-Irish parents. His father’s name was James Fair; only his mother’s maiden name, Graham, is known. In 1843 Fair’s parents left Ireland with their son and emigrated to the United States. The family settled in Geneva, Illinois. After attending public schools, Fair continued his studies, primarily in business, chemistry, and mathematics in nearby Chicago....

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Forbes, John Murray (23 February 1813–12 October 1898), merchant, capitalist, and railroad developer, was born in Bordeaux, France, and raised in Milton, Massachusetts, the son of Ralph Bennet Forbes, a merchant, and Margaret Perkins. Through the generosity of his elder brother, Thomas Tunno Forbes, young John enjoyed five years of schooling at the experimental Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, before taking up a place in 1828 as a clerk to his uncles in Boston, the China traders James and ...

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Garrett, Robert (02 May 1783–04 February 1857), merchant and financier, was born in Lisburn, County Down, Ireland, the son of John Garrett and Margaret MacMechen. When Garrett was seven years old his family immigrated to the United States, with his father dying in the course of the journey. His newly widowed mother settled with her children on a farm in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where young Garrett grew up performing many of the required chores. In 1798 the family moved to another farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and in the following year, seeking greater opportunities, Garrett accompanied an older brother on a trading expedition among the Native American tribes of the area. After traveling extensively along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, the pair was forced by severely cold weather into spending the winter among the Indians near present-day Marietta, Ohio. The trip proved profitable in more ways than one; in addition to the brothers’ success in trading their goods for furs, the venture alerted the younger Garrett to the economic opportunities available in the West....

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Green, John Cleve (04 April 1800–29 April 1875), philanthropist, railroad entrepreneur, and China trader, was born in Lawrenceville (formerly Maidenhead), New Jersey, the son of Caleb Smith and Elizabeth Green. His great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Dickinson, was first president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University; this family connection would later play a great part in Princeton’s future....

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Hambleton, Thomas Edward (17 May 1829–21 September 1906), blockade runner and financier, was born in New Windsor, Maryland, the son of Thomas Edward Hambleton, a dry-goods merchant and entrepreneur, and Sarah Slingluff. His parents moved in 1831 to Baltimore, where Hambleton received his early education before enrolling in St. Mary’s College, from which he graduated in 1849. He then entered into a partnership in Baltimore that manufactured agricultural implements. In 1852 he married Arabella Stansbury, with whom he had three children....

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Hopkins, Johns (19 May 1795–24 December 1873), merchant and financier, was born on a tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County (south of Baltimore), Maryland, the son of Samuel Hopkins and Hannah Janney, farmers. The plantation was prosperous through Johns’s early years, and the family lived well. In 1807, following the direction of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Samuel freed the family’s slaves. As a result, Johns, the second of eleven children, had to leave school to help maintain the farm. Although Johns never received any further formal schooling, he had a hunger for knowledge and worked to educate himself in his spare moments. His distinctive and often misspelled first name came from his great-great-grandfather Richard Johns....

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Hunt, John Wesley ( August 1773–21 August 1849), pioneer merchant, manufacturer, and financier, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Abraham Hunt, a merchant, and Theodosia Pearson. Growing up with seven siblings, John probably attended a private school. At a young age he began training in business in his father’s general store in the same two-story building as their home in Trenton. His father also taught him about breeding racehorses and about flour milling....

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Larkin, Thomas Oliver (16 September 1802–27 October 1858), merchant, diplomatic agent, and capitalist, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Oliver Larkin, Sr., a sea captain, and Ann Rogers Cooper. His spotty education is reflected in his correspondence, which is sprinkled with misspellings and grammatical slips. When Oliver was five, his father died, and in 1813 his mother remarried and moved the family to Lynn, which young Oliver always looked upon as his hometown. At the age of fifteen, he went to nearby Boston “to learn the art of making books,” a trade he abandoned two years later for a clerkship in a bookstore. That, too, proved confining, so in October 1821 he set out with a friend for Wilmington, North Carolina, to seek his fortune....

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Morris, Robert (20 January 1735–08 May 1806), preeminent merchant and revolutionary financier, was born in Liverpool, England, the son of Robert Morris, Sr., an ironmonger and later a tobacco agent in Maryland, and Elizabeth Murphet. Shortly after Morris joined his father in Maryland in 1747, his father placed him in the care of Robert Greenway of Philadelphia, who obtained an apprenticeship for Robert in the established Philadelphia mercantile house of Charles Willing. Morris quickly displayed exceptional talent and resourcefulness in commerce, sometimes serving as supercargo on the firm’s vessels. He also became a lifetime friend of Charles Willing’s son ...

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Phelan, James (02 December 1821–23 December 1892), merchant and entrepreneur, was born near Grantstown, Queen’s County (now County Laois), Ireland, the son of John Phelan and Judith Brophy, farmers. Phelan was brought to America to rejoin his widowed father, who had emigrated in search of greater economic opportunities. James reunited with his two older brothers (John and Michael) and his father in Newark, New Jersey, in 1827. Upon the early business failure of John Phelan, Sr., the three sons ceased attending public school. James entered the retail trade at $5 per month plus his keep....

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Sturgis, William (25 February 1782–21 October 1863), China trader and financier, was born in Barnstable on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the son of William Sturgis, a shipmaster, and Hannah Mills. His father sent Sturgis in 1795 to James Warren’s boarding school in Hingham. In 1796 he went to work as a clerk in the Boston commercial house of his uncle Russell Sturgis. Eighteen months later he was able to secure a similar position with James Perkins and ...

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Thatcher, Mahlon Daniel (06 December 1839–22 February 1916), merchant and banker, was born in New Buffalo, Pennsylvania, the son of Henry Thatcher, a blacksmith-turned-schoolteacher, and Lydia Ann Albert. After working as a partner in his father’s Pennsylvania store, Mahlon headed west in 1865 to join his brother John Albert, who had opened the first general store in Pueblo, Colorado. Mahlon invested $2,900 in a stock of goods that he brought to the business....

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Woolley, Edwin Dilworth (28 June 1807–13 October 1881), merchant, business manager for Brigham Young, and Mormon bishop, merchant, business manager for Brigham Young, and Mormon bishop, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of John Woolley, a farmer and schoolteacher, and Rachel Dilworth. Raised a Quaker (he spoke with “thees” and “thous” all of his life), Edwin Woolley was the eldest of seven children. His mother died when he was nineteen and his father when Edwin was twenty-five, and he was left with the care of his brothers and sisters. In 1831 he married Mary Wickersham, originally of West Chester. The next year Woolley, his wife, and his orphaned brothers and sisters moved to East Rochester, Ohio, Mary’s home. In addition to farming, Woolley operated a general store. Discovering coal under his land, he also engaged in coal mining. A man of unflagging industry, Woolley prospered....