Published on July 13, 2016
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 one of the wealthiest families in America; Cornelius Vanderbilt having been the second richest American in history (after John D. Rockefeller). 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. The family’s downturn in prominence has been referred to as the “Fall of the House of Vanderbilt”.
Branches of the family are found on the United States East Coast. Examples include: Sandra Topping[who?], granddaughter of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and the former Margaret Emerson, who had two daughters, Alexandra Baker[who?] and Whitney Baker[who?]. Contemporary descendants include fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, her youngest son, journalist Anderson Cooper, musician John P. Hammond, screenwriter James Vanderbilt and actor Timothy Olyphant.
Jan Janszoon and his son Anthony Janszoon van Salee were among the ancestors of the Vanderbilts. They were among the earliest arrivals to 17th century New Amsterdam. In a number of documents dating back to this period, Jan’s son is described as “mulatto”, as his mother was a Moorish woman from Cartagena, Spain.
The prominence of the Vanderbilt family began with Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877), the fourth of nine children born to a Staten Island family of modest means. His great-great-great-grandfather, Jan Aertszoon or Aertson (1620–1705), was 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 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. Van Der Bilt means in Dutch “from the low hill”
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 built the largest private home in New York, at 1 West 58th Street, containing approximately 154 rooms, designed by George B. Post. He also built The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island.
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.
George Washington Vanderbilt, William Henry Vanderbilt’s youngest son, built Biltmore, in Asheville, North Carolina.
While some of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s descendants gained fame in business, others achieved prominence in other ways, e.g.:
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1877–1915), was a passenger on the RMS Lusitania and died when it sank.
Alfred’s son Alfred Jr. became a noted horse breeder and racing elder.
Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884–1970) gained fame as a sportsman. He invented the contract form of bridge and won the most coveted prize in yacht racing, the America’s Cup, on three occasions.
Harold’s brother William Kissam “Willie K” Vanderbilt II launched the Vanderbilt Cup for auto racing.
William Henry Vanderbilt was Governor of Rhode Island.
Gloria Vanderbilt is a noted artist, designer and author.
Gloria’s son, Anderson Cooper, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist, author, and television producer and personality.
In 1855, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt donated 45 acres (34,000 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.