A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

Info  FAQ  Site map  Links  Books  Login



  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 19 / August 31, 2004

<<  List of chronicles   

Content :
1 – Wealth in Colonial America
2 – New and updated wealth classification lists : 1675  1700  1725  1750


" Wealth in Colonial America "

When in the 17th century, the European nations started to settle North America, the quest for gold, as a symbol for material wealth, was still the main force driving both, the early settlers and the financiers who backed and organized the colonization of the continent. For sure, many of our forefathers fled religious persecution and sought an ideal of freedom in the practice of their religion. But with the exception of the early Puritan settlements in New England, (religious) persecution was a secondary motive for emigration, the pursuit of a better life, in material terms, being the essential one.

Gold seemed utterly inexistent on the North American continent, the natives having failed to develop an advanced and urbanized civilization as the Aztecs and the Incas had in Central and South America. The fortune hunters from the Old World thus had to seek alternative ways to squeeze wealth from these vast and unsettled lands. These invariably involved the establishment of settlements and colonies. The mercantilist policies of the leading European nations (Spain, England, France and the Netherlands) further encouraged and financially backed such colonization.

There were essentially two sources of wealth in Colonial America : commerce and the ownership of land. Beaver skins and other pelts originally were the single most valuable commodity North America had to offer. Bartered with Indians against “wampum” (beads) and certain household goods (blankets, kettles, axes, …), they were in great demand in Europe and built the initial fortunes of men like John Pynchon of Boston, Robert Livingston of Albany and William Byrd of Virginia. With the proceeds of their fur trade, these men bought land and further grew their wealth and influence.

Agricultural products followed the settlement and development of the land. Tobacco and rice were the favorite commercial crops of the South (Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas) and the basis for the establishment of an aristocracy of large plantation owners. The most successful of them, the Carters, Randolph, Fitzhugh and Lees, took an active part in colonial politics, controlled the trade of their crops (by owning, ships, wharves and warehouses) and used black slaves as an alternative to indentured (white) servants, which eventually proved more profitable.

In New York, huge land tracts were granted to a few families (Van Rensselaer, Livingston, Philipse, Van Cortlandt, Schuyler, Beekman, Bayard and a few more) by the Royal governors Dongan and Fletcher. Wheat from tenant farms was collected as rents and bolted in the landlords’ gristmills to be sold in the city or exported, in general also by the landlord or his agents. An oligarchy of city merchants sought to control the trade, exporting furs to London and Amsterdam, flour and provisions to the West Indies and Southern Europe and importing dry-goods, wine and sugar in return. Wealthy merchants such as Stephen De Lancey, Abraham De Peyster, Rip Van Dam, the Cuylers, Crugers and Van Hornes constituted an influential counter weight to the large landed interests in New York politics.

Commerce prevailed over agriculture in New England, where the rough climate and unfertile soil forced the settlers to turn to the sea and trade. The Yankee traders consequently became the most successful shipping merchants of the American colonies. The triangular trade, involving stops in West Africa where slaves were loaded and shipped to the Caribbean sugar plantations, was thereby the lucrative epitome of colonial trading patterns. Smuggling to avoid increasingly stringent English taxation was paramount, and privateering (legalized piracy), a welcome source of quick profits in times of war. The most successful colonial merchant dynasties of New England were the Tyngs, Dudleys and Whartons of Boston, the Browns, Champlins, Vernons and Malbones of Rhode Island and the Pepperells, who owned huge land tracts in Maine and were active in fisheries and shipbuilding, in addition to international trade.

In Philadelphia, Quaker merchants, such as Anthony Morris, Isaac Norris and the Pembertons prospered, investing the returns of their profitable trading ventures in city lots and country estates. Their trade was so prosperous it enabled them, most notably Isaac Norris, to bail out William Penn, the proprietor of the whole province of Pennsylvania (some 30 million acres), who despite his huge land holdings was held in prison for a £15’000 debt, he had allegedly contracted with the [Philip] Ford family.

This pattern was not that uncommon. Although their huge landholdings nominally put the great land proprietors (Penn, the Calverts of Maryland, the eight proprietors of Carolina, the Culpeppers of the Northern Neck and “Sir” Ferdinando Gorges of Maine) among the wealthiest capitalists of Colonial America, their undeveloped land was so singularly unproductive, that titles of proprietorship to whole future states (ie Maine and New Jersey) changed for a few thousand pounds in the 17th century. Penn himself unsuccessfully tried to sell Pennsylvania back to the Crown for £20’000 in 1702.

Industrial activities were hardly encouraged by the British Colonial policies, but needs and the prospect of healthy profits induced some colonists to start manufacturing nevertheless. The Beekmans (New York) and the [Anthony] Morrises (Philadelphia) earned much wealth from their breweries, the Bayards and the Van Cortlandts engaged in sugar refining and the Livingstons made iron on their manor land. In Maryland the Carrolls did likewise with the Baltimore Iron Works. Philadelphia Quakers were eager manufacturers too and notably backed pioneer paper works (Samuel Carpenter) and printing.

By the time of the American Independence, the colonies had produced many wealthy families, whose lifestyles differed little from those of the English nobility. Allied by dynastic marriages over several generations, these merchant princes of Boston and Philadelphia, planter aristocrats of Virginia or country squires of New York were an unlikely enough group to stage a Revolution. Yet they did and the bitter conflict split many wealthy families, like the Crugers of New York or the Randolphs of Virginia.

Both sides paid dearly for the conflict, the mansions of many a patriot (like Lewis Morris III or Thomas Nelson jr) being destroyed and their fortunes impaired by the decline of the Continental credit. The real losers of course were the Loyalists, whose estates were confiscated and redistributed. The most prominent in New York were the De Lanceys and the Philipse. Meanwhile, the gained liberties to trade with all nations set the opportunities for enterprising merchants to build new fortunes.

Read more about the wealthy families of Colonial America in Part I of
A Classification of American Wealth “ : Colonial and Mercantile America
or browse the new or updated wealth classification lists 
1675  1700  1725  1750 
in the
Encyclopedia of American Wealth.


Announcement - In preparation at “A Classification of American Wealth” :
Lists of wealthy Americans in politics (the richest presidents, vice-presidents, governors, senators, cabinet members and more) in the history of the United States of America –
coming soon.


New and updated wealth classification lists :

1675  1700  1725  1750  1775  at  ”Encyclopedia of American Wealth

Many of you have been waiting for these lists to be updated and reintroduced, so I took the opportunity of a long summer to work on them. The result is finally here : a new list (1675) and updated lists for each generation in the colonial period of the history of American Wealth. As everything in this web site, they are not final though. Many more people deserve to figure on these lists and they will, once they can be properly identified and appraised. More people also deserve full profiles, which will be added gradually, notably in a coming update, where the corresponding lists of wealthy families of Colonial America will be introduced.

Enjoy your research.

D.C. Shouter
August 31, 2004


Copyright © 2000-2016 : D.C.Shouter and RAKEN Services