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American royalty: Inside the dynasties of the Kennedys, Rockefellers & More

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

America doesn’t have royalty but it does have its fair share of dynastic families. From political power players like the Bushes, Clintons, and Kennedys, to the oldest of old money like the Rockefellers, Du Ponts and Astors – money and power have been passed down these bloodlines for hundreds of years.

Using Forbes’ America’s richest families list, Yahoo Finance compiled a list of five families whose accumulated, wealth, influence and longevity make them the American equivalent of the royal family.

Media Titans: The Hearst family

Worth: $35 billion

Wealth established: 1887

Source of wealth: Hearst Corporation

The Hearst Family

The Hearst fortune began in the late 1800s with George Hearst, a millionaire goldmine owner and U.S. senator. Hearst's son William Randolph attended the finest schools but was kicked out of Harvard University for throwing keg parties in Harvard Square and sending used chamber pots to his professors. After his expulsion, William Randolph took over managing the San Francisco Examiner, a publication his father had won as settlement for a gambling debt. He soon found he had a flair for the industry and began publishing populist stories, attacking business magnates and corruption. The Examiner became the most popular newspaper in San Francisco and William went on to acquire the New York Morning Journal and other newspapers. The modern day Hearst Corporation owns 49 newspapers, nearly 340 magazines and stakes in the ESPN, Lifetime and A&E television channels.

Like his father, William Randolph was involved in American politics—he was a member of Congress for two terms and ran for both mayor and governor of New York. William Randolph’s life is said to be the inspiration behind Orson Welles’ film "Citizen Kane"—his notorious home, Hearst Castle, was also the inspiration for Kane’s Xanadu.

The Hearsts remain in the publishing business—William Randolph Hearst Jr. won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his international reporting and William R. Hearst III chairs Hearst Corporation today.

Like so many royal families, the Hearsts are not without their own drama. In 1974, 19-year-old Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. After two months in captivity Patty announced that she had joined the cause and robbed a bank while holding an M1 carbine gun. She was arrested a year later and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Jimmy Carter shortened her sentence to just two years and in 2001 President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon.

Oil barons: The Rockefeller family

Worth: $10 billion

Worth Established: 1858

Source of wealth: Standard Oil

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller was the eldest of six children born to a con artist father who often traveled often as a botanic physician selling various elixirs. But despite Rockefeller’s raucous upbringing he was a serious boy who kept his head down and studied hard. Eventually he became a bookkeeper and then used his savings to build an oil refinery. The commercial oil industry was just beginning to burgeon and Rockefeller happened to be at the right place at the right time-- by the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s, he had made a name for himself in the business and successfully founded Standard Oil. Rockefeller succeeded in essentially cornering the energy market and became the first billionaire in the United States—his fortune was estimated to be around $336 billion in 2014 dollars. Rockefeller also played a large role in banking; he and his family were the largest shareholders of Chase National Bank and helped propel the bank into the biggest in the world.

After dominating the oil industry Rockefeller went on to revolutionize philanthropy. With his son, he gave away over $1 billion to educational institutions and public health causes. Rockefeller also founded Rockefeller University in Manhattan—an institution meant to focus on medical studies.

Today the Rockefeller family continues its dedication to charity and makes money through real estate, banking and politics. David and Nelson Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller’s grandchildren, built and managed Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center. They also had high political ambitions: Nelson Rockefeller served as vice president under Gerald Ford, and David Rockefeller was offered but declined roles as the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Federal Reserve Chairman and senator of Massachusetts.

Jay Rockefeller is currently the senior senator in West Virginia.

Political power players: The Kennedy family

Worth: $1 billion

Worth established: 1919

Source of wealth: Various

The Kennedy Family

Politics appear to run through the blood of the Kennedy family. President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and current Rep. Joe Kennedy III are just some politicians in the well-connected group. Throughout the years the Kennedys have inhabited just about every office—from mayor to ambassador.

The Kennedy fortune and legacy began with Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy in the 1880s. After dropping out of school and saving money at his Boston docks job, P.J. bought a bar in Haymarket Square. Business was good, and he was soon able to expand his alcohol empire—he purchased two more saloons and eventually a whiskey-importing business. P.J. also began the political legacy of the family; he served five terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and three terms in the Massachusetts Senate. His son, Joseph P. Kennedy, kept the business and political legacy alive.

Joseph married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of Boston’s mayor, and became a stock market and commodity investor. Joseph made a fortune, often through the use of insider information which was then legal, and became the first chairman of the SEC. Joseph made additional money from investing in film productions and real estate and continuing his father’s liquor-import ventures (he is rumored to have imported alcohol during the Prohibition era). Joseph Kennedy’s wealth was estimated by the New York Times to be $500 million at the time of his death in 1969. His nine children went on to cement the Kennedy’s role in politics and, unfortunately, the rumors of the “Kennedy Curse.”

Today the 30 Kennedy family members keep their money in a series of trusts, which allow maximum income with minimal taxation.

Oldest money: The Du Pont family

Worth: $15 billion

Worth established: 1802

Source of wealth: Dupont

The du Pont family

The Du Pont family are descendants of French royalty, a fact they used to their advantage when they first came to the U.S. in 1799 (fleeing anti-aristocratic mobs in France). Pierre Samuel du Pont quickly established a relationship with Thomas Jefferson and other government officials and acted as a liaison between Napoleon and America. He also came up with the idea behind the Louisiana Purchase. His son, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was a chemist and founded a gun powder factory in 1801. The factory was a success and Éleuthère's sons were able to take it over and turn it into the largest supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. military. Forty percent of all powder used by the Union forces in the Civil War was supplied by the Du Ponts. The company continued to grow through the 1800s and branched out into other explosives. In 1914 Pierre S. du Pont decided to invest into the then-fledgling auto industry. He eventually became the president of GM.

Du Pont’s scientists also developed nylon, Kevlar and Teflon. While no Du Ponts currently run the business, the family still holds a large amount of shares in the company.

Pierre "Pete" S. du Pont IV was governor of Delaware through the 1970s and '80s and ran for president in 1988. But the Du Ponts may be best known for John du Pont, the subject of the recent film "Foxcatcher" staring Steve Carell. John du Pont died in prison after being convicted of murdering Olympic wrestler David Shultz in a two-day standoff with police.

There are currently 3,500 Du Ponts mostly residing in Deleware and Florida, but most do not know each other.

Most money: The Walton family

Worth: $152 billion

Worth established: 1962

Source of wealth: Walmart

The Walton Family

The Walton family is the newest and wealthiest family to make the list. In 1962 Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in Bentonville, Ark., and worked for most of his life to make it what it is today—the world’s largest retailer with 11,000 retail units and 2.2 million employees. The family still owns 51% of the company's shares and splits them among Sam’s three living children, daughter-in-law and his two nieces. They are currently the wealthiest dynasty in American history.

While there are no politicians in the family yet, the Waltons are typically large supporters of conservative political candidates and have given millions to causes and candidates.