The Vanderbilt family is an American family of Dutch origin that was prominent during the Gilded Age. Their success began with the shipping and railroad empires of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the family expanded into various other areas of industry and philanthropy. Cornelius Vanderbilt's descendants went on to build grand mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City, luxurious "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island, the palatial Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, and various other opulent homes.
The Vanderbilts were once the wealthiest family in America. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the richest American until his death in 1877. After that, his son William acquired his father's fortune, and was the richest American until his death in 1885. The Vanderbilts' prominence lasted until the mid-20th century, when the family's 10 great Fifth Avenue mansions were torn down, and most other Vanderbilt houses were sold or turned into museums in what has been referred to as the "Fall of the House of Vanderbilt".
Branches of the family are found on the United States East Coast. Contemporary descendants include fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, her youngest son, journalist Anderson Cooper, actor Timothy Olyphant, musician John P. Hammond and screenwriter James Vanderbilt.
The progenitor of the Vanderbilt family was Jan Aertszoon or Aertson (1620–1705), a Dutch farmer from the village of De Bilt in Utrecht, Netherlands, who emigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland as an indentured servant to the Van Kouwenhoven family in 1650. Jan's village name was added to the Dutch "Van" (from) to create "Van der Bilt", which evolved into Vanderbilt when the English took control of New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). The family is associated with the Dutch patrician Van der Bilt.
His great-great-great-grandson Cornelius Vanderbilt began the prominence of the family, the fourth of nine children born to a Staten Island family of modest means. Through his paternal great-great grandmother Abigail Southard, he descends from Republic of Salé President Jan Janszoon and his son Anthony Janszoon van Salee. They were among the earliest arrivals to 17th century New Amsterdam. In a number of documents dating back to this period, Anthony is described as tawny or mulatto, as his mother was of Berber origin from Cartagena in the Kingdom of Murcia. Cornelius Vanderbilt left school at age 11 and went on to build a shipping and railroad empire that, during the 19th century, would make him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Starting with a single boat, he grew his fleet until he was competing with Robert Fulton for dominance of the New York waterways, his energy and eagerness earning him the nickname "Commodore", then the highest rank in the United States Navy. Fulton's company had established a monopoly on trade in and out of New York Harbor. Vanderbilt, based in New Jersey at the time, flouted the law, steaming in and out of the harbor under a flag that read, "New Jersey Must Be Free!" He also hired the attorney Daniel Webster to argue his case before the United States Supreme Court; Vanderbilt won, thereby establishing an early precedent for America's first laws of interstate commerce.
The Vanderbilt family lived on Staten Island until the mid-1800s, when the Commodore built a house on Washington Place (in what is now Greenwich Village). Although he always occupied a relatively modest home, members of his family would use their wealth to build magnificent mansions. Shortly before his death in 1877, Vanderbilt donated US$1 million for the establishment of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The Commodore left the majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt. William Henry, who outlived his father by just eight years, increased the profitability of his father's holdings, increased the reach of the New York Central Railroad, and doubled the Vanderbilt wealth. He built the first of what would become many grand Vanderbilt mansions on Fifth Avenue, at 640 Fifth Avenue. William Henry appointed his first son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, as the next "Head of House".
Cornelius II's brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt, also featured prominently in the family's affairs. He also built a magnificent home on Fifth Avenue and would become one of the great architectural patrons of the Gilded Age, hiring the architects for (the third, and surviving) Grand Central Terminal. He also built Marble House at 596 Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island.
While some of Cornelius Vanderbilt's descendants gained fame in business, others achieved prominence in other ways, e.g.:
In 1855, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt donated 45 acres (~182,000 m²) of property to the Moravian Church and cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island, New York. Later, his son William Henry Vanderbilt donated a further four acres (16,000 m²). The Vanderbilt Mausoleum was designed in 1885 by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.
The lavish spending by the third and fourth generations of the family, followed by the Great Depression, and the institution of income and estate taxes, gutted the family fortune. According to the National Park Service, except for the descendants of the Duke of Marlborough, most of the rich members of today's clan have had to earn their fortunes back by the "sweat of their brows."
The following list includes etiquette guru Amy Vanderbilt (1908–1974), although it is believed she descended from either an uncle or brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt and is therefore not a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The list also includes Deryck Gray-Vanderbilt[who?], illegitimate grandchild of Alfred Vanderbilt; Josiah Hornblower (b. 1975), a distant cousin of the Vanderbilts and Whitney family who was featured in the 2003 documentary, Born Rich; and Alfred G. Vanderbilt's daughter, Rita L. Vanderbilt Macdonald[who?].
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