3. John Jacob Astor

richest americans
  • Adjusted wealth*: $138 billion
  • Lived: 1763-1848

Astor got his start as a fur trader after hearing a fellow traveler talk about the profession on his voyage to America. A penniless German immigrant, his business endeavors were helped when he married his wife, who came from a wealthy family.

But his real money came from investing in Manhattan real estate. By the time his son ran the family businesses, the Astors owned over 700 Manhattan properties.

The Astor family fortune was one of the most enduring of the top 20, thanks in part to the elder Astor's insistence that half his trust be set to skip a generation, preventing its squander by spendthrift heirs.

First published June 2, 2014: 6:18 PM ET
Source: *Most nominal wealth estimates are from The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, and include wealth at time of death, including bequests. Estimates were then calculated as a fraction of the overall economy at time of death by Sam Williamson of Measuring Worth, and then presented in 2013 dollars based on the size of the current U.S. economy. Estimates for Gates and Buffett provided by Wealth-X.

Biographical information from The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, Encyclopedia Britannica, and The Prize by Daniel Yergin.