Cornelius Vanderbilt, (May 27, 1794 - January 4, 1877), was an American entrepreneur who built his wealth in shipping and railroads and is the founder of the renowned Vanderbilt family.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was the fourth of nine children born in Port Richmond on Staten Island in New York to a family of modest means. His great-great-great-grandfather, Jan Aertson, was a Dutch farmer from the village of Bilt in Holland who immigrated to New York as an indentured servant in 1650. Aertson's village name was eventually added to the Dutch "van der" (of the) to create "van der bilt" which was eventually condensed to Vanderbilt.
As a young boy, Cornelius Vanderbilt worked on ferries in New York City, quitting school at age 11. By age 16, he was operating his own business, ferrying freight and passengers. On December 19, 1813, Cornelius Vanderbilt married his cousin and neighbor, Sophia Johnson (1795-1868), daughter of his mother's sister. He and his wife had thirteen children one of which, a boy, died young. By 1830, Vanderbilt's business had expanded to the Hudson River. Soon he controlled coastal trade along the entire coast of New England. During the California Gold Rush, he ran a steamship line from New York to California via Nicaragua.
In the early 1860s, Vanderbilt started withdrawing capital from steamships and investing in railroads. By 1867, he owned the New York Central and Harlem railroads. By 1873, he had connected Chicago to New York City.
After the death of Sophia Vanderbilt, he eloped to Canada where on August 21, 1869 he married a distant cousin from Mobile, Alabama by the name of Frank Armstrong Crawford. Ms. Crawford was 43 years his junior. It was her nephew by marriage that convinced Cornelius Vanderbilt to commit funding for what would become Vanderbilt University.
Ruthless in business, Cornelius Vanderbilt made few friends in his lifetime but many enemies. He was a vulgar, mean-spirited individual who made life miserable for everyone around him, including his family. In his will, he disowned his sons except for William who was as ruthless in business as his father and the one Cornelius believed capable of maintaining the business empire. At the time of his death, Cornelius Vanderbilt's fortune was estimated at more than $100,000,000. He willed $95,000,000 to son William but only $500,000 to each his eight daughters. His wife received a $500,000 in cash, their modest New York City home, and 2,000 shares of common stock in New York Central Railroad.
Vanderbilt gave little of his vast fortune to charitable works, leaving the $1,000,000 he had promised for Vanderbilt University and $50,000 to the Church of the Strangers in New York City. He lived modestly, leaving his descendents to build the flock of Vanderbilt houses that characterize America's Gilded Age.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was buried in the family vault in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island. Three of his daughters and son Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt contested the will on the grounds that their father had insane delusions and was of unsound mind. The unsuccessful court battle lasted more than a year and Cornelius Jeremiah committed suicide in 1882.
Surviving children of Cornelius Vanderbilt & Sophia Johnson:
Phebe Jane (Vanderbilt) Cross (1814-1878)
Ethelinda (Vanderbilt) Allen (1817-1889)
Eliza (Vanderbilt) Osgood (1819-1890)
William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885)
Emily Almira (Vanderbilt) Thorn (1823-1896)
Sophia Johnson (Vanderbilt) Torrance (1825-1912)
Maria Louisa (Vanderbilt) Clark Niven (1827-1896)
Frances Lavinia Vanderbilt (1828-1868)
Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt (1830-1882)
Mary Alicia (Vanderbilt) LaBau Berger (1834-1902)
Catherine Juliette (Vanderbilt) Barker LaFitte (1836-1881)
George Washington Vanderbilt (1839-1864)