What town is truly the richest in the history of the United States? If riches are defined through consumption, accumulation of resources, tangible displays, and hereditary status, the Native American town of Cahokia would be hard to beat until the 1850s. In the antebellum period, wealth concentrated in the Lower Mississippi Valley, with Natchez having the largest concentration. This is because slaves were worth more than manufacturing and railroads combined. Today, we think of wealth as millionaires and billionaires. Interestingly, the word millionaire wasn’t even created until the 1820s. With the post-Civil War economy focusing on free labor and answering the forces of industrialization and immigration, one saw wealth being created and concentrated.
In 1892, The New York Tribune compiled the first list of American millionaires, arriving at 4,047 names. This list is begrudgingly accepted as a fairly accurate list of millionaires. Without the IRS, it took massive self-reporting and research by reporters to compile the list.
So where did these millionaires live? The Tribune lists 1,103 millionaires out of a population of 1.5 million to 1.67 million depending on source. The per capita rate of millionaires for New York is between 1,359 and 1,513. Brooklyn, counted separately in the census, had over a hundred millionaires of their own. Remember NYC’s range for the subsequent look at other towns that make the claim.
In Clinton, there were 4 listed (3 Lambs and one Young), and Lyons had one (D. Joyce). In 1902, the World Almanac compiled their own, much smaller, list of millionaires. Only the Young estate made the list. The 1902 list is considered more narrow in its definition of a millionaire and an inclusive example of the impact of the 1890s depression.
Community references put the number at 13 for Clinton, even though I have never seen the list. So where does Clinton rank among millionaire towns? It is true that the wealth of Clinton’s millionaires, and the reputation of them, earned many early 20th century references to Clinton’s millionaires. I would posit this is because of the Mississippi River Logging Company. Founded in 1870, the MRLC was a regional partnership of lumbermen, and practically every member became a millionaire. Most of their board meetings were held in Clinton’s millionaires’ houses. Countless other millionaires came here, andour millionaires regularly went to Chicago and New York. After all, the millionaire club was very exclusive. So, was Clinton home to the most millionaires per capita? Simply, no, but let’s examine the numbers.
First, how do you calculate the population of Clinton? Until 1895, Clinton and Lyons were two separate towns. In 1890, Clinton had 13,619 residents while Lyons had 5,799. By combining the two towns and accepting 13 millionaires, the per capita rate is 1,493, which is right in line with New York. But what if it is two different towns? The answer is “impossible” to accurately say how the millionaires not listed in the Tribune would have been distributed.
There wasn’t an IRS keeping track of incomes. I have heard some reference additional family members making up the list. However, if we are to add family members to the original list of 4, wouldn’t one be able to do the same for all other families around the country? Finally, once again, modern scholarship and contemporary scholarship accept the general validity of the 1892 list.
So what about a particular year or decade, perhaps Clinton was a capital for a particular time? Interestingly, for the 1880s, dozens of towns claim this is when they had the most millionaires per capita. Others make their claim for the 1890s or the 1900s. In the 1880s, it will be hard to beat Cheyenne, Wyoming. They had 8 millionaires in a town of 3,000 for a per capita of 375. Using “claims” though, one town claims 13 millionaires in a town of 499.
By 1902, you see that the lumber money had moved out of town or divested to such a degree that individuals weren’t millionaires anymore. Clinton’s most interesting competition is Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which claims both most millionaires and to be the lumber capital of the world during our same decades. In fact, they were so confident of this claim, the high school is nicknamed the Millionaires.
In sum, the issue about the most millionaires is best stated in the Clinton County Historical Society Image book. “W.J. was truly one of the millionaires of the 19th century in Clinton,” is how we should consider our millionaires. Not that we had the most, not that we had the best, but that ours were memorable in the 19th century, left a legacy in many cases along with their workers and fellow businessmen and women for the 20th century, and are being celebrated in the 21st centuryfor their uniqueness.
As with the beginning of the millionaire age to today, New York has always loomed large in America’s economic landscape. It will always be hard to dethrone New York, New York, not New York, Iowa as the millionaire capital of the world.
One final note of perspective, it seems that the modern country with the highest per capita rate of millionaires in the American hemisphere is Haiti.
Matt Parbs, is the director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum and first discovered the power of history while participating in Model United Nations at Lincoln Land Community College and under some great teachers. The passion transitioned to a mania at the University of Illinois at Springfield under the tutelage of an amazing department. While originally planning to convert students into historians, an off chance visit to a museum turned into a career in museums. His historical interest can be summed up in one word: agency.