20 Billionaire American Dynasties and How They Made Their Money

Velho Junior / Shutterstock.com

Velho Junior / Shutterstock.com

A billion dollars can cast a long shadow — and not just if you get it all in $1 bills and see how high you can pile it. The legacy of a billion-dollar fortune can often stretch across generations and historical eras. Once you accumulate a large fortune, it only gets that much easier to expand it by relying on compound interest and smart investing to keep building returns and growing your money year after year. After all, even a modest 5% annual return translates to $50 million in income a year when the starting point is $1 billion.

The end result of that is that the wealthiest families in America tend to stay that way and only get wealthier. Even as the initial patriarch who kick-started the dynasty fades from memory, their legacy of an enormous accumulation of wealth can continue to grow generation after generation.

The Rockefeller Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $8.4 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Oil

The legendary John D. Rockefeller wasn’t just the richest man of his day, he might be among the highest individual net worths of all time. At his peak, Rockefeller’s assets accounted for 1.5% of the nation’s total economic output — the equivalent today of a $340 billion fortune that would lap Jeff Bezos twice with room to spare.

The Rockefeller fortune was born out of Standard Oil, the company he founded in 1870. Rockefeller ruthlessly either acquired or drove out all of the competition in the oil refinery business so that he could control a near-complete monopoly. Today, the fortune he initially built is spread out across 174 different heirs and supports a lot of important philanthropic work.

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The Johnson Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $36 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Investing

The Johnson family is now in its third generation of helping average Americans invest their money after Abigail Johnson took the reins of Fidelity from her father Ned in late 2014 after he had been in charge from 1977 on. The company, though, was founded by Edward C. Johnson II back in 1946.

Fidelity is the second-largest mutual fund company in the world behind Vanguard, and the Johnsons own some 49% of it. Abigail is one of four family members sharing their namesake fortune.

The Sackler Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $10.8 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Pharmaceuticals

The Sackler family has been in the news lately, just for all the wrong reasons. The family’s enormous wealth started with the founding of Purdue Pharma in 1952. However, it really kicked into high gear in the 1990s with the development of OxyContin in 1995. The pain medication proved so popular that it was selling $1.6 billion a year by 2003.

It’s clear now that the popularity of OxyContin was only partially due to its medical uses, and the Sackler family is now the target of a torrent of bad press as the opioid epidemic continues to grow worse. Purdue Pharma paid out a $600 million settlement in 2007 after pleading guilty to the accusation that it had marketed OxyContin as being safer and less addictive than it actually was, and the company has been buried in lawsuits ever since.

Today, the family’s long history of philanthropy in the art world has started to draw ire, with protestors pressing art museums to reject future donations.

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The Mellon Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $12 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Banking, investing

If there’s one family that knows a thing or two about money management, it’s the Mellons. Starting with Irish immigrant Thomas Mellon’s arrival on American shores in 1818, the family founded the Mellon Financial Corporation — which was acquired by the Bank of New York in 2006 to form BNY Mellon — and was a crucial early investor in companies like Alcoa and Gulf Oil.

That net worth would likely be much higher were it not for the family’s long history of philanthropy. Today, the Mellons are still at it, with descendant Matthew Mellon working as an investor and entrepreneur.

The Ziff Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $15 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Publishing

The Ziff family can trace the origins of its fortune back to 1927, when clan patriarch Williams Ziff, Sr. started his publishing business. Best known for PC Magazine and Car and Driver, Ziff’s magazines were a staple on newsstands and generated great wealth for the family. Then, in what can only be described as astonishingly good timing, the Ziff family cashed out for $1.4 billion in 1994. And after scoring one of the lottery tickets of a lifetime by selling their magazine company right before the advent of the internet, the Ziff brothers Daniel, Robert and Dirk would use the funds to start a successful hedge fund business that helped them grow those funds by ten times before they closed down in 2014.

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The Dorrance Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $15 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Soup

Remember in college when you were so broke that all you could afford to eat was soup? Well, good news! It helped create this billionaire dynasty. The dynasty was kicked off by John T. Dorrance after he invented the formula for Campbell’s condensed soup in 1897 and took over the company in 1914.

From there, some 11 different members of the Dorrance family own over 50% of the enormous conglomerate that has a brand portfolio that includes Prego, V8 and Pepperidge Farm. It’s not all still American, though: John “Ippy” Dorrance III cashed out his 10.5% stake in the company, renounced his citizenship and moved to Ireland in the mid-1990s — reportedly to skip out on the tax bill.

The Hunt Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $15.5 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Oil

In a certain sense, the real source of the Hunt family’s wealth is cards. The family patriarch — H.L. Hunt — supposedly financed his first stake in the Arkansas oil boom of the 1920s with his poker winnings. And if you’re thinking: “Wow, that sounds like the sort of story straight out of the show ‘Dallas,'” you win the prize. The television family the Ewings are suspected by many to be based on the Hunts.

However, if you’re wondering why you haven’t seen any of Hunt’s children pop up in the annual Forbes lists of billionaires, that’s because the sizable fortune was already pretty well spread out just one generation later. He had some 15 children with three different women. The kids do still own the Kansas City Chiefs and have a minority stake in the Chicago Bulls, though.

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The du Pont Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $16 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Materials

So what was the source of the explosive growth in wealth for the du Pont family? That would be gunpowder. The eponymous company was founded by E.I. du Pont after he fled the French Revolution in 1799 and started manufacturing gunpowder in the United States. Over the years, that expanded to include a variety of materials and the scientists in its employ would develop nylon, Kevlar and Teflon.

If the name seems familiar, Steve Carrell garnered a nomination for an Academy Award in 2015 for his portrayal of John du Pont — one of the many descendants of E.I. du Pont — who murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996. Fortunately for the family, John du Pont was hardly the only one carrying on the family legacy: After more than 200 years, there are an estimated 3,500 members of the du Pont family tree at this point.

The Busch Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $17.6 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Beer

Along with the Brown family and the Gallo Family — who’s $10.7 billion fortune wasn’t quite enough to include here — it’s clear that booze appears to be one of the better avenues for producing enormous generational wealth in America. The Busch family are of German heritage and can trace their fortune to the union of two men. Eberhard Anheuser left Germany in 1843 to become one of the biggest soap and candle makers in St. Louis. However, his success would find another gear when his daughter Lilly tied the knot with Adolphus Busch, an enterprising salesman of brewing supplies.

Together, the Anheuser-Busch company would start brewing its own beer and ultimately take the market by storm with their Budweiser beer. In 2008, the Busch family sold the family business to Brazilian and Belgian investors as part of a takeover by InBev, but the $17.6 billion fortune is still spread out across an estimated 30 family members.

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The Brown Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $20.4 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Liquor

If the name Brown isn’t ringing a bell, perhaps it’s because their most recognizable contribution to the American landscape goes by a different, iconic name: Jack Daniels. The Brown family owns the Brown-Forman Corp. that produces Jack Daniels, Finlandia and Herradura, among other prominent liquor brands.

The family of distillers can be traced back to George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman who managed to save and borrow $5,500 to start the company with his half brother. Selling whiskey in sealed glass bottles — notably their flagship brand Old Forester — they started a company that would go own to build an enormous fortune for Brown’s ancestors.

Today, the fortune is spread across 25 different family members and includes 51% of the shares in the publicly-traded company.

The Hearst Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $21 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Publishing

Sure, $21 billion. But no Rosebud. The massive Hearst Corp. owes its roots to William Randolph Hearst, who’s most famous for either being the inspiration for the title character of “Citizen Kane” or starting the Spanish American War, depending on who you ask.

However, the long legacy of Hearst’s yellow journalism continues to this day as his $21 billion fortune is now spread across some 67 different members of the Hearst clan.

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The Newhouse Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $30 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Publishing

The Newhouse family’s considerable publishing empire has some pretty modest beginnings: Samuel Irving Newhouse was working as a clerk for a local judge when the chance to take over the failing local paper — the Bayonne Times — came across his desk. That was the start of a career that would continue gaining speed — and papers — until he acquired Conde Nast Publications — publisher of Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — in 1959. By the time S.I. Newhouse passed in 1979, his company controlled 31 newspapers, seven magazines, five radio stations, six television stations and 15 cable stations.

Today, the Newhouse fortune is spread across at least three family members, including Samuel “Si” Newhouse and Donald Newhouse.

The Pritzker Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $32.5 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Hotels

The Hyatt Hotel chain is owned by the Pritzker family, with 11 different members of the family qualifying as billionaires. Thomas is the only Pritzker still maintaining a role within the company founded by A.N. Pritzker with help from sons Jay, Donald and Robert.

Of course, today, many Pritzkers are better known for their roles outside the hotel business. Penny Pritzker served as the U.S. secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, and just two years after she left office her brother — J.B. — won the 2018 election to be the new governor of Illinois.

The Cox Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $34.5 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Broadcasting, publishing, automotive products

The foundations of Cox Enterprises lie with James Middleton Cox, who borrowed $26,000 from friends in 1898 to buy the Dayton Evening News. And, after a brief hiccup when he was elected governor of Ohio and then ran for president as the Democratic nominee in 1920 — with some political nobody named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate — Cox started growing his media empire in earnest in 1923.

From there, he would branch out from newspapers into radio, then television, then cable television, and then, naturally, auto sales. Today, the Cox family fortune is divided among five grandchildren of James Cox. And, just for the record, if you’re keeping track of which newspapers are responsible for launching two of the nation’s biggest media fortunes, that would be the Dayton Evening News and the Bayonne Times.


The Johnson Family (Part II)

  • Approximate Net Worth: $37 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Consumer goods

The S.C. Johnson family wins the surprisingly competitive category of “wealthiest Johnsons in America.” The family’s wealth can be traced back to S.C. Johnson, who started a parquet flooring company in 1886. Two years later, he developed a floor wax and it gave rise to a home goods conglomerate that would eventually create products like Ziploc, Pledge and Glade. Today, the massive private company is split 60-40 between Herbert Fisk, Jr. and Henrietta Johnson Louis — children of S.C.’s son Herbert — and the company’s chairman and CEO is H. Fisk Johnson III, who represents the fifth generation of Johnsons at the firm.

The Lauder Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $40 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Makeup

One family that’s had plenty of praise heaped upon it over the years is the Lauders, the owners of Estee Lauder cosmetics. The eponymous Estee founded the firm with husband Joseph in 1946. Today, the publicly traded company includes some 30 different makeup brands. Though, while it’s publicly traded, some 87% of the voting power remains in the hands of Lauder family members.

The current generation of Lauders includes Ronald — a former U.S. ambassador to Austria — and Gary, who runs a Silicon Valley tech investment firm.

The Cargill-MacMillan Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $47 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Agriculture

You could be forgiven for not having heard of one of the largest private companies in the world if you’re not in the agricultural industry, but Cargill was producing over $100 billion in revenue on an annual basis as of 2016. The company traces its roots to W.W. Cargill, the son of a Scottish sea captain who started a grain storage business in 1865. And while grain storage might not be quite the world-beating business it was at the close of the Civil War, Cargill has continued to grow into an agro-business giant over the years.

W.W. would give way to son-in-law John MacMillan in 1909, and today the Cargill-MacMillan family has some 14 different billionaires in its rank due to their ownership of 88% of Cargill, Inc. Six members of the family sit on its 17-person board.

The Mars Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $94 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Candy

The family’s other-worldly wealth owes its origins to the collective sweet tooth of Americans — serving a variety of confections for over a century. But, if you’re using billionaire dynasties to gauge the most successful industries, it would appear to come down to oil, newspapers, booze and candy, as the Mars family is worth $94 billion just over a century after Frank Mars started selling sugary treats out of his Tacoma, Washington kitchen. Of course, that food empire has sprawled to include Milky Way, Snickers, M&M, Uncle Ben’s and even pet food brands Pedigree and Whiskas.

The Koch Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $100 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Diversified holdings including electronics components, software, consumer products, forestry and energy

Charles and the late David Koch have achieved a new level of visibility for their company — the largest private company in the United States — due to their public support for a variety of conservative causes. But before the two brothers were known for pumping money into politics, their father Fred Koch was launching the family business by developing thermal cracking — a new process in refining crude oil into lighter oils and gasoline.

Brothers William and Frederick tried to take control of the company in 1983, but their failure resulted in them cashing out for $800 million and leaving the family business to Charles and David, who died in 2019.

The Walton Family

  • Approximate Net Worth: $247 billion
  • Source of Wealth: Retail

Perhaps a big part of the reason for why the Waltons have climbed to the very top of this list is because their family business — Walmart — is the place where many Americans wind up buying the majority of products made by the other family businesses on this list. And, with the seven heirs to Sam Walton’s retail empire holding a combined net worth just shy of Jeff Bezos, they remain one of the richest families in the world. The namesake company was founded by brothers Sam and James “Bud” Walton in 1962, went public in 1970 and today has a market cap north of $395 billion.

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All net worths were sourced from Forbes.