William Avery Rockefeller was the kind of man they called a scoundrel in the 1800s. He was a peddler, a quack, an itinerant, and generally a ne’er-do-well. His story would be long forgotten, were he not the father of the richest man in human history.
The Erie Canal and the “Burned-Over” District
On October 26, 1825 the Erie Canal was opened, unleashing a swarm of New Englanders upon the farmlands of western New York. Farmers there could now transport crops to the east coast at 5% of the former price. As a stimulant to economic growth, the canal succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its early advocates.
At the same time, the United States was in the midst of an outpouring of religious fervor — the Second Great Awakening. The young, enterprising New Englanders were especially susceptible to such movements, and the consequence was a surge of ministers and revivals in the new towns by the canal.
The revivals were spectacular. People would gather and sit on the bare earth, sometimes through the entire night, while preachers evoked visions of salvation and damnation. Massive torches were lit and the glow spread through the darkened woods, advertising the proceedings, and helping to give the region its moniker as the “burned-over” district.
This culture fueled a number of new religious groups.
- A man named William Miller staked his reputation on the idea that the world would end on October 22, 1844. This was based on a verse-by-verse reading of the Bible and five years of painstaking calculations. October 23rd of that year became known as “The Great Disappointment”.
- The Shakers were a sect that formed their own communities and pledged themselves to lifelong celibacy. Their name caught on in part from the characteristic way in which they danced in circles (i.e. “shaked”) during their services. Increasing their numbers a constant battle.
- Guided by the angel Moroni, Joseph Smith found two golden tablets near Palmyra, New York, written in ancient Egyptian. He translated these tablets into the Book of Mormon and then returned them to an angel who carried them off into the sky.
These were some famous movements but they were hardly the only ones, and there were numerous traveling preachers making their circuit through western New York. They combined to give the 1830s and 40s a distinctive feel in the memory of that region.
William Rockefeller: itinerant peddler and frontier womanizer
William Rockefeller was cut from a different cloth.
He was in his mid-twenties when he arrived in the burned-over district. Rather than devote his attention to farming or preaching, however, he became a full out huckster.
Blessed with incredible marksmanship, Rockefeller’s practice at times was to introduce himself to a village by way of a shooting contest. After he shot a smoking pipe or an apple from two hundred yards, it was only natural for his words to carry some legitimacy with the townspeople.
At other times, he adopted a simpler strategy. He simply affixed a slate to the front of his shirt saying “This man is deaf and dumb”, and proceeded to hold written conversations. Only the hardest of hearts would deny him a meal and a place to stay with such a handicap weighing against him.
William Rockefeller must have taken more time than usual at the house of John Davison, for John’s daughter Eliza saw enough of him to exclaim, “I would marry that man if he weren’t deaf and dumb!”
With her heart set upon that path, William convinced Eliza to overlook his initial reticence. The Davison family was prosperous, and winning the hand of Eliza was no small feat for a con artist like William Rockefeller. John Davison would hate William for the rest of his life, and with good reason.
Matrimonial bliss for one of the Rockefellers
William had another girlfriend whom he hired as a domestic. For the first years of marriage, he maintained a clandestine relationship with this woman and she became pregnant twice, as did Eliza Rockefeller, with the result being that William Rockefeller fathered four children in the span of two years. One of these children was a boy and they named him John Davison Rockefeller.
The responsibilities of family life did not weigh all too heavily on the conscience of William Rockefeller. He continued to disappear for months at a time as an itinerant fraudster. His most common trick was the sale of patent medicine. For instance, he sold a “cancer cure” that was part oil, part laxative. Once he sold the medicine, Rockefeller generally tried to leave town as soon as possible, definitely waiting for no more than an hour.
In 1849, William Rockefeller was indicted for rape. This severed his relations permanently with Eliza’s family and forced him to abscond from the immediate area. Thus, the Rockefeller family ended up in Cleveland. By the time he was in high school, John Rockefeller had lived in five different towns and probably twice as many houses.
Eliza Rockefeller and her children
While William was gallivanting around the region, Eliza was left to care for the five children that she bore. She preached to them the gospel of deliberation and self-control, no doubt influenced by the poor decisions she had made in that regard.
The finances were kept under the strictest management. A young John Rockefeller learned how to keep books, as his mother taught him to account for family expenses and debts to the local store. He had a natural ability at math.
Eliza was a deeply religious woman, trapped by her naive decision into a hard life. In spite of her situation she was uncomplaining and her determination never (visibly) wavered. Like his mother, John Rockefeller found solace in the church. He found a serene fulfillment in the services that was rarely seen in teenage boys, and he adopted his mother’s Baptist faith in full.
John would grow up to be a teetotaler with a straight-laced reputation, and there is no evidence to suggest that he led a double life on this account.
John D. Rockefeller enters the workforce
In the 1850s, William Rockefeller assumed the name of “William Levingston” and traveled through Ontario. There he met a 17 year old girl named Margaret Allen, and both she and her family were quite impressed with the “bachelor doctor”. Margaret’s sister later recalled that, “He was a steady, temperate man of good habits, kind-hearted, sociable and well liked by everybody.”
On June 12, 1855, “William Levingston” married Margaret Allen and began his new life as a bigamist. At that same time, a letter arrived to the Rockefellers, advising them that income was reduced and that expenses should be cut. It is one telling example out of thousands on how easily one could reinvent themselves in the antebellum world, if they were perfidious enough to manage it.
Cleveland was not yet a tenth of the industrial power it would soon become, but it was a bustling, regional transport center. For six weeks, six days a week, ten hours a day, a sixteen-year old John looked for work with a shipping firm to support his family. He went to some places three of four times, never relenting. He was finally hired on September 26th and put to work on the spot.
Even in his old age, Rockefeller remembered it vividly:
“All my future seemed to hinge on that day; and I often tremble when I ask myself the question: ‘What if I had not got the job?’”
For the rest of his life, John D. Rockefeller celebrated September 26th with more gusto than he did his own birthday.