The Rockefeller family is an American industrial, political and banking family that made one of the world’s largest fortunes in the oil business during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with John D. Rockefeller and his brother William Rockefeller primarily through the Standard Oil. The family is also known for its long association with and financial interest in the Chase Manhattan Bank, now part of JPMorgan Chase. They are generally seen as one of the most powerful families in the history of the United States.
The Rockefeller Archive Center, an independent foundation that was until 2008 a division of Rockefeller University, is a vast three-story underground bunker built below the Martha Baird Rockefeller Hillcrest mansion on the family estate at Pocantico (see Kykuit). Along forty-foot-long walls of shelves on rails, maintained by ten full-time archivists, is the entire repository of personal and official papers and correspondence of the complete family and its members, along with historical papers of its numerous foundations, as well as other non-family philanthropic institutions. These include: the Commonwealth Fund, Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, and the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation. In total, it holds over 70 million pages of documents and contains the collections of forty-two scientific, cultural, educational and philanthropic organizations.
The Center maintains that this repository of records, covering 140-plus years of the records of the family, in addition to non-Rockefeller philanthropic collections, gives unique insights into United States and world issues and social developments in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
A trademark of the dynasty over its 140-plus years has been the remarkable unity it has maintained, despite major divisions that developed in the late 1970s, and unlike other wealthy families such as the DuPonts and the Mellons. A primary reason has been the lifelong efforts of “Junior” to not only cleanse the name from the opprobrium stemming from the ruthless practices of Standard Oil, but his tireless efforts to forge family unity even as he allowed his five sons to operate independently. This was partly achieved by regular brothers and family meetings, but it was also because of the high value placed on family unity by first Nelson and John 3rd, and later especially with David.
Regarding achievements, in 1972, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy, the Carnegie Corporation, which has had a long association with the family and its institutions, released a public statement on the influence of the family on not just philanthropy but encompassing a much wider field. Summing up a predominant view amongst the international philanthropic world, albeit one poorly grasped by the public, one sentence of this statement read: “The contributions of the Rockefeller family are staggering in their extraordinary range and in the scope of their contribution to humankind.”
John D. Rockefeller gave away US$540 million over his lifetime (in dollar terms of that time), and became the greatest lay benefactor of medicine in history. His son, “Junior,” also gave away over $537 million over his lifetime, bringing the total philanthropy of just two generations of the family to over $1 billion from 1860 to 1960. Added to this, the New York Times declared in a report in November, 2006 that David Rockefeller’s total charitable benefactions amount to about $900 million over his lifetime.
The combined personal and social connections of the various family members are vast, both in America and throughout the world, including the most powerful politicians, royalty, public figures, and chief businessmen. Notable figures through Standard Oil alone have included Henry Flagler and Henry H. Rogers. Contemporary figures include Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Richard Parsons (Chairman and CEO of Time Warner), C. Fred Bergsten, Peter G. Peterson (Senior Chairman of the Blackstone Group), and Paul Volcker.
In 1991 the family was presented with the Honor Award from the National Building Museum for four generations worth of preserving and creating some of the U.S.’s most important buildings and places. David accepted the award on the family’s behalf. The ceremony coincided with an exhibition on the family’s contributions to the built environment, including John Sr.’s preservation efforts for the Hudson River Palisades, the restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia, construction of Rockefeller Center, and Governor Nelson’s efforts to construct low- and middle-income housing in New York state.