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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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Bates, Joshua (10 October 1788–24 September 1864), merchant and banker, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the son of Colonel Joshua Bates and Tizrah Pratt. Bates’s father served as an officer during the Revolution. Joshua suffered from ill health as a child. He was educated by a private tutor and at the public school. When he was fifteen his father apprenticed him in the counting house of William R. Gray, the son of ...

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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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Chouteau, René Auguste (07 September 1749–24 February 1829), pioneer in the western fur trade and explorer, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was baptized on 9 September, 1749, the son of René Auguste Chouteau and Marie Thérèse Bourgeois. His father was a French immigrant who operated a tavern in New Orleans. The marriage of his parents broke up shortly after his birth, and his father returned to France. His teenage mother proved herself resourceful and eventually went to live with a prominent fur trader, ...

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Davenport, George (1783–04 July 1845), Indian trader and frontier townsite entrepreneur, was born in Lincolnshire, England. Nothing is presently known of his parentage or childhood, although he apparently enjoyed the equivalent of a good common-school education. At age seventeen he was placed with an uncle, a captain of a merchant vessel. In 1804 Davenport’s ship visited New York, where he broke his leg and had to be left behind to recuperate....

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Delafield, John (16 March 1748–03 July 1824), merchant and underwriter, was born in Aylesbury, Bucks, England, the son of John Delafield, a cheese merchant, and Martha Dell. Most historians claim John Delafield accumulated considerable property in England as a young brewer from an ancient, distinguished family. Though obviously a man of means by American standards, Delafield may not have been as well off as supposed and could have moved to the newly independent United States at age thirty-five to better his business prospects. Delafield arrived in British-occupied New York City on 4 April 1783, bearing the first copy of the provisional treaty of peace to reach the new republic. He immediately joined the Chamber of Commerce and started a mercantile, insurance, financial brokerage, and real estate business. He was so successful that he was soon one of the richest men in New York and was able to retire from active mercantile pursuits in 1798, though he continued in marine insurance....

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Duer, William (18 March 1743–07 May 1799), businessman and politician, was born in Devonshire, England, the son of John Duer, a wealthy squire, and Frances Frye. After graduating from Eton, Duer joined the British army and traveled to India, where he later served as secretary to Lord Clive, governor-general of the East India Company. Duer soon fell ill, however, and returned to England. His father’s subsequent death left him in possession of a large inheritance, which included an estate in the West Indies. By 1768 Duer was actively managing his estate and trading with prominent businessmen in New York, including ...

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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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Flint, Charles Ranlett (24 January 1850–12 February 1934), merchant and company promoter, was born in Thomaston, Maine, the son of Benjamin Flint and Sarah Tobey, merchants. His mother died three years later and his father remarried in 1856. Charles attended schools in Maine and Brooklyn, graduating from the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn in 1868. His father and uncle operated a shipping business from 1837, which Flint eventually joined in 1885. In 1883 he married Emma Kate Simmons. He retained the occupational title of merchant throughout his life and his career reflected the expansion and changing character of the New York trading community during the late nineteenth century. In 1871 he and George W. Gilchrist, a shipbuilder and neighbor in Thomaston, established a ship chandlery firm. A year later Flint acquired a 25 percent stake in W. R. Grace & Co., a New York trading company with interests in Peru; George W. Gilchrist was the father-in-law of ...

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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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Forstall, Edmond Jean (07 November 1794–16 November 1873), merchant, banker, and sugar planter, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Edouard Pierre Forstall and Celeste de la Villebeauve. The father’s occupation is uncertain, but in Edmond’s youth several members of the Forstall family, Edouard perhaps one of them, were active in Louisiana commerce. Record of Edmond’s education is lacking, but at the age of twelve he went to work for a merchant. In his adulthood he was fluent in English as well as French and read and wrote widely in both languages. As early as 1818 he was named a director of the Louisiana State Bank. By 1819 he was associated with the New Orleans firm of Gordon, Grant & Company, and in 1823 when the firm reorganized as Gordon & Forstall, Forstall became managing partner. In July 1823 he married Clara Durel; the couple had eleven children, one of whom died in infancy....

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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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Girard, Stephen (20 May 1750–26 December 1831), merchant, banker, and philanthropist, was born in Bordeaux, France, the son of Pierre Girard, an officer in the French navy, and Odette Lafargue. He was blind, or partially sighted, in one eye at birth and, therefore, probably received less formal education than his peers. At age fourteen he signed on as a cabin boy for vessels sailing to the West Indies. His first American port of entry was New Orleans. After receiving a license to serve as a ship captain at age twenty-three, Girard was named an officer on a voyage to Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue (now Haiti), in 1774. He departed the West Indies and set sail for New York with a consignment of sugar and coffee. Rather than returning to France, Girard remained in New York and became an employee of the shipping firm of Thomas Randall & Son. He purchased a half-interest in the ship ...

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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....