Steamboats, railways and philanthropy: 'American Dynasty' traces the lives and legacy of the Vanderbilts

Fox Nation’s “American Dynasty” reveals the complex stories of America’s greatest and most influential families including the Vanderbilts – who are featured in the pilot episode of the new eight-part series, now streaming on Fox Nation

Cornelius Vanderbilt – now a staple of American industrialization and wealth – was once a man with hardly anything to his name. He pursued the American dream at the opening of American industrialization in the early 1800s and became a legendary philanthropist and businessman. 

Born to poor parents on May 27, 1794, Vanderbilt’s childhood starkly contrasted with the life he would create for his family. Living in Staten Island, New York, the Vanderbilts worked in the ferry services, with Cornelius joining the workforce as early as 11 years old. 

As the episode explores, the Commodore was a natural entrepreneur and wanted to own his own business from a young age. In his teenage years, his parents loaned him $ 100 to launch his own shipping and ferry business, which he managed to repay within the first year. During this first enterprise, he developed his signature skill of charging less than his competition.

While his business grew, Vanderbilt married his first cousin Sophia Johnson in 1813, and the couple would eventually have 13 children. 


Vanderbilt continued to operate his shipping and ferry business until 1818. He sold all his ships to become a steamboat captain where he partnered with Thomas Gibbons. The pair worked together for over a decade, and Vanderbilt accumulated a small fortune. Once again, Vanderbilt employed his signature strategy charging less than the competition which made their steamboat service the primary service in the region. 

Like any good entrepreneur, the Commodore continued to evolve his business and left Gibbons to start his own steamboat company. In the next decade, Vanderbilt grew his steamboat service throughout the Northeast. He revolutionized consumer steamboat travel and made a name for himself with the low costs and luxury feel of his ships. 

By the 1860s, however, Vanderbilt saw the future of transportation was not on water, but on land. He saw the future of his fortune in railroads, and so he bought up established rail lines instead of trying to build new ones – which was a pricey task. 

Cornelius Vanderbilt first consolidated rail lines in the New York region before moving towards Chicago. By the late 1860s, the Vanderbilts accumulated the largest railway system in America and made millions. 


Cornelius’s wife Sophia died in 1868, so Cornelius remarried at 73 years old to another cousin, Frances Armstrong Crawford, who was only 39 years old at the time.

This marriage, however, defined his philanthropy later in life. As the episode divulges, it was Frances who encouraged Cornelius to donate to a university in Nashville – which would later become none other than Vanderbilt University

He had additional philanthropic pursuits later in life, but died in 1877 at 83 years old. His son, William H. Vanderbilt inherited the majority of the family fortune, but as is the case with many families, this was contested by his other remaining children. 

The exterior of Kirkland Hall on the campus of Vanderbilt University. The building is the oldest on campus dating from 1874.

The exterior of Kirkland Hall on the campus of Vanderbilt University. The building is the oldest on campus dating from 1874. (iStock)


Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt family amassed a great fortune, helped shape much of America’s landscape, employed thousands of Americans, contributed to social institutions and defined American transportation for much of the 1800s. Theirs is a legacy of big dreamers and hard workers chasing the American dream. 

Now, the future of Vanderbilt’s empire rested with the next generations — but will they live up to the name? 

Stream ‘American Dynasty’ on Fox Nation to find out.

In addition to the Vanderbilts, “American Dynasty” will also unveil the lives of the Rockefellers, Fords, Gettys, DuPonts, Morgans, Kennedys and Bushes

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