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John D. Rockefeller: Was A robber baron Of Petroleum?

Updated on April 12, 2013

John D. Rockefeller

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Was John D. Rockefeller a robber baron of petroleum?

(Presented through research which supports Rockefeller as a robber barron.)

John D. Rockefeller was a robber baron who used his insight of business to ruthlessly force other oil and petroleum companies out of business, and who managed to hide it all from the public. Rockefeller thought of all possible ways to eliminate his competitors. He asked the railroad for secret rebates, thought only about money, and decisively brought the strongest men to his sides in order to completely envelop other oil and petroleum companies with two options, “Join or die”.

What Are The Details?

From 1859, the year that oil was discovered, to 1870 Rockefeller, Flagger, and Andrews had become the largest oil company in the world. It took them a mere 11 years to almost completely take over the oil and petroleum industry, yet their desires did not stop there. They had the largest oil refinery in the world. “Rockefeller’s plan seemed to take into account no one’s feelings…” Business historian Matthew Josephson states that Rockefeller developed a plan that was designed to, “…control and direct the flow of oil into the hands of a narrowed group of refiners.” This shows that Rockefeller did not really care about who was going to get crushed in the process, as long as he could have all the profit, nothing else mattered to him. By this time, he had already wiped out four of his 29 petroleum competitors. He did a good job keeping everything secret, as his wife advised him. He made sure his “greatly augmented wealth” was something that the public did not know about, which is what made him such a reputable person in the eyes of the public, even though he was not.

Furthermore, Rockefeller, in order to insure a greater profit for his company, asked the Railroads to provide him with secret rebates. The railroad agreed, since Rockefeller had promised a steady supply of 60 cars of oil barrels. Rockefeller insisted on rebates again and again, until his company was paying almost $0.40 less per barrel of oil than his competitors. He, again, kept all this secretive in order to avoid uprisings by companies that were paying the regular amount. The railroad shipped him a secrete rebate, and this way there was no way for anybody to find out how much they were paying, thus secretly but steadily advancing him to the top.

Lastly, in order to insure the top position of the company he now was the head of, he proposed a plan to Flagger which included selecting a narrow group of refiners to control the oil and petroleum industry with. Together they drew up a list which would completely “decimate” their competitors. While it is true that Rockefeller saw the petroleum and oil business as chaotic and disorderly, that was not the main reason he wanted to create a monopoly. He wanted to organize everyone according to his whims, so that he would end up on top and, “bound to be rich.” Many oil refineries agreed to join. This was because they sensed that they would have no chance against a massive joint-stock company like that, so they would rather join than run out of the petroleum business. Rockefeller made yet another deal with the railroad asking for another rebate for all members of his newly formed business, and for prices twice as high for companies not in his corporation. Once the railroad agreed to this, other oil refineries and petroleum companies had a very slim chance of surviving.

A refinery in Canada
A refinery in Canada

Was He A Robber Barron?

John D. Rockefeller was a robber baron who used illegal tactics to get himself to the top and drive other petroleum and oil companies out of business. Rockefeller cheated his boys in order to “make them sharp.” He hid from the public, asked for secret deals on oil shipments, and encircled himself with the top men in order to ensure his success and the demise of all other oil refineries.

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Works Consulted

  • Poole, Keith. "American Experience: TV's Most-watched History Series." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
  • "The New Tycoons: John D. Rockefeller." The New Tycoons: John D. Rockefeller []. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
  • "John D. Rockefeller." John D Rockefeller. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2010.
  • Webb, Mary Griffin, and Edna Lenore Webb. Famous Living Americans, with Portraits,. Greencastle, IN: C. Webb &, 1915. Print.


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      marco 2 years ago

      Thank you for this article! However I don't really agree with him being Robber Baron. He provided many jobs for the American citizen, and there i no crime in trying to get rid of competition. If anyone was in that position, they would try to do the same! And asking the railroads to provide him with rebates, is not illegal, it is something that is done commonly in our free enterprise system. It is common as the "little guy" to say that its unfair to eliminate competition, however remember that the other companies have the option of saying no, even if it is useless. Who's fault is it if someone has the money, strategy, and position to take over a business? Is it wrong to take advantage of your position and take over a business? Where do you draw the line? Not trying to bash anyone here, just my opinion. :)

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      Stevie 4 years ago

      Thank you, this was quite wonderful. However, what was Rockefeller's treatment of his workers?

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 5 years ago

      Oh, definitely! He was great in his field and no doubt he impacted the economy in a positive way, but at what expense? The little companies. Although I find it hard to believe that if any of those smaller businesses had the same opportunity they would have taken a different path.

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      Meg 5 years ago

      I do not think he was a robber baron. He had a rare gift in business and he used it, who cares? The rebates he got were for the benefit of the railroads as well, because they guarenteed the supply of his desired oil.

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 6 years ago

      I think I'm going to have to agree with you on this. One can't deny that he did in fact help out the economy in the end, but the end did not justify the means.

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      Angela 6 years ago

      I learned about him in Prep for Prep. In my research class. On 1st impression, I didn't like him. He was a robber baron.

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 6 years ago

      Indeed it does. I made sure to let readers know from the beginning. If this is the side they want to support, then the information is all here :) Thank you

    • profile image

      argaergaer 6 years ago

      Very informative, thank you.

      and to all the people debating, remember this article is bias like every other article :P

    • profile image

      roddy 6 6 years ago

      help me do my report on him.

    • profile image

      Jordan S. 6 years ago

      This is very helpful... nicely put together. It clearly paints the dark side of John Davis Rockefeller Sr. Thanks

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 6 years ago

      I must say...these 4 previous comments are rather amusing. The subject is open to debate, however,...was he or was he not?

    • profile image

      Mia 6 years ago

      @roar i agree that he was a robber barron

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      roar 6 years ago

      if u paid more attention you would see that he is a robber barron

    • profile image

      Other John 6 years ago

      ...really? I think he was.

    • profile image

      john 6 years ago

      i don't think he was

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 7 years ago

      @Nicholas Sabater: I agree with you too, but I also side with the "robber baron" point of view. While it is true that Rockafeller kickstarted the American economy and was very successful, he also eliminated ALL his competition and was tyrannical over the industry. And the issue with secret rebates, very bad business practice. Then again, is there any business without bad mannerisms?

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      nicholas sabater  7 years ago

      very informative but i do not agree with the message Rockefeller was a good buisness man and donated more than half of his fortune and mad a major impact on the nations economy

    • agvulpes profile image

      Peter 7 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for this information and if it is true it does not paint Mr Rockefeller in a very good light. But then again I don't think he was the only man to carry on his business in this manner?

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 7 years ago from Western US

      Nicely written and very informative. Looking forward to more great reads! Welcome to Hubpages!