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The Blog

The Cast: Chapters 1 & 2

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is populated by a large cast of secondary characters. Here are a few from chapters 1 and 2, "The Islander" and "The Duelist."


Phebe Vanderbilt: Cornelius Vanderbilt's mother. Of English descent, she was tough, shrewd, and frugal. She made her own money, which she lent out at commercial rates of interest, and even foreclosed on a mortgage held by her own daughter when her daughter's husband died. Vanderbilt revered her.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Senior: Often dismissed in biographical accounts as inept and unsuccessful, the father of Cornelius Vanderbilt was in fact an entrepreneurial fellow who lifted himself up from nothing to amass a reaonably sizeable estate. He ran a sailboat ferry, salvaged wrecked ships, and operated a farm. He was his son's partner in some of his early operations.

Sophia Vanderbilt: In 1813, Vanderbilt married his first cousin, Sophia. Quiet, unassuming, and hardworking, she moved with him from Staten Island to Broad Street in New York late in the War of 1812, where they lived in an artisans' boarding house. In the 1820s, they moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she operated Bellona Hall, an inn for travelers between New York and Philadelphia. She used the proceeds to feed, clothe, and educate her many, many children. She would be pregnant for nine months out of every twenty between her wedding and the onset of menopause.

John De Forest: Vanderbilt's brother-in-law. A sea captain who ran a ship along the Atlantic coast before the War of 1812, he took on young Vanderbilt as a partner after the war. He then went to work for the Richmond Turnpike Company, headed by Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins (of Tompkins Square Park and Tompkinsville fame today), serving as captain of the Nautilus, the first steam ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island.


Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton: In 1798, the aristocratic Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of New York's court system, received a grant of a monopoly on steamboats in state waters. Unfortunately he didn't know how to build steamboats, but fortunately he met Robert Fulton, who did. Livingston died in 1813 and Fulton in 1815, but their monopoly lived on in the hands of Livington's heirs.

Aaron Ogden: A hero of the Revolution, Ogden lived in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He became a United States senator and governor of the state. In the latter capacity, he fought the Livingston monopoly—in part, to be able to run his own steamboat ferry to New York. In the end, the Livingstons sold him a license to operate his ferry.

John R. Livingston: Chancellor Livingston's brother, John was gout-ridden, suspicious, and volatile. He owned the rights under the family grant to operate steamboats in New York Bay—that is, between Manhattan and New Jersey, Staten Island, and western Long Island. He had given Ogden (and Tompkins's Richmond Turnpike Company) a steamboat license only under intense family pressure.


Thomas Gibbons: An irascible and obese slaveowning planter from Georgia, Gibbons resettled in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, to escape his family (though he kept possession of his slaves and plantations). A gifted lawyer and an old patrician (he engaged in multiple duels over the course of his life), he fell into a dispute with his neighbor Aaron Ogden. When Ogden refused to fight a duel, he decided to bankrupt him by running a steamboat in opposition to Ogden's. To operate the boat, he hired a young ferry master named Cornelius Vanderbilt. Meanwhile he pressed ahead with plans to have the Supreme Court declare the steamboat monopoly unconstitutional.

Daniel Webster: One of the most important statesmen of American history, Webster was already prominent as a congressman and lawyer before the United States Supreme Court when young Vanderbilt went to Washington to hire him to represent Gibbons in his challenge to the steamboat monopoly. Vanderbilt and Webster impressed each other, and Vanderbilt took a keen interest in the legal case. When John R. Livingston had Vanderbilt arrested for violating the monopoly, Vanderbilt appealed all the way to the Supreme Court himself. Vanderbilt v. Livingston was next on the high court's docket when it heard the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden.
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