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Richest Americans in history

By Judy Martel · Bankrate.com
Monday, June 23, 2014
Posted: 10 am ET

You've heard the names: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Astor, Carnegie. They symbolize American wealth and power and, in many cases, a philanthropic legacy we still enjoy today.

© JStone/Shutterstock.com.

He may be the richest man in the world today, but billionaire Bill Gates' fortune is less than a third of the one built by the richest man in history.

Using information from the book "The Wealthy 100," by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, CNN Money compiled a list of the 20 richest Americans in history, using estimates of wealth at the time of death and converting it into 2013 dollars.

Rockefeller's legacies

The richest man ever, at least so far, was John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), founder of Standard Oil. His estimated net worth in 2013 would be an astounding $253 billion.

After his oil conglomerate was broken up by being in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1911, Rockefeller actually grew richer. Today, BP and ExxonMobil are part of his business legacy.

The Rockefeller Foundation he set up thrives and promotes humanity throughout the world.

Bill Gates doesn't make the top 10

Steamship and railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) is second on the list, with an estimated fortune of $205 billion. Third is real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), with an estimated net worth of $138 billion.

Notable for his philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie, (1835-1919), founder of the eponymous steel conglomerate, is No. 6 on the list with $101 billion. He established nearly 3,000 public libraries. He publicly pledged to give most of his fortune away and encouraged other rich people to do the same.

Gates, Buffett take lesson from Carnegie

To get to a living individual, you have to go past the top 10 to No. 12, where you'll find Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, currently the richest person in the world, according to Forbes. His net worth is estimated at $74 billion. Born in 1955, he left the company in 2008 and devotes most of his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose net worth is estimated at $63.8 billion, is the only other living American on the list of 20, coming in at No. 14.  Born in 1930, he is also devoted to philanthropy, pledging the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation.

There are many reasons individuals today don't reach the levels of wealth that were amassed during America's Gilded Age. One is that there were fewer government regulations on business. Another is that there was no federal personal income tax until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

Inherited wealth can be a bummer: Check out seven of the common afflictions.

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