This is the story of a mother and a son. The son became the world’s richest man, its first billionaire and founder of the first truly multinational corporation. The son made his father’s name universally known, as it remains today, while his mother’s name has been forgotten, reduced to a footnote of history. The son resembled his mother physically, mentally and spiritually, and was raised by her almost single-handedly since his father regularly abandoned the family. The mother has never received the acknowledgement she is due and although she has been dead for over 100 years it is not too late.
The mother is Eliza Davison and her son is John Davison Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. The son is commonly referred to as John D. Rockefeller and through his actions and those of his descendants the Rockefeller name has earned a great deal of prestige, power and mystique. John Davison Rockefeller was his mother’s son in every way and so it is high time to put the “D” back in John D. Rockefeller.
John Davison Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839 in Richford, New York to Eliza Davison and William Avery Rockefeller. John D was named after Eliza’s father, John Davison, a prosperous farmer of Scottish descent. John D had two sisters, Lucy and Mary Ann, and two brothers, William and Frank. Of the three brothers John D remained the most like Eliza, William mixed qualities of both parents and Frank was the most like his father1. Eliza was drawn close to John D by her husband’s recurring absences and by the fact that he was obviously more like her than any of the other children2.
A number of authors have noticed the strong physical resemblance of John D to the Davison side of the family. Where William and Frank had their father’s broad face and high forehead, John D had Eliza’s narrow face, piercing eyes and sharp chin1.
Mother John D Father John D and his elder sister, Lucy, strongly resembled each other and their mother3. John D inherited Eliza’s almost expressionless face and a mouth accustomed to silence4.
With her husband preferring to avoid church, Eliza made sure that John D and his siblings were brought up with the strong Baptist faith of her forbearers, beliefs that John D steadfastly maintained throughout his life. Eliza always encouraged her children to drop coins into the church collection plate and John D later cited his mother’s altruism as the genesis of his philanthropic orientation1. From his mother John D learned economy, order, thrift, and other virtues that figured so largely in his later success at Standard Oil1.
Since Eliza confided in John D and gave him adult responsibilities, he matured rapidly and acquired unusual confidence; as the stand-in for his absent father, John D kept a tight rein on the family budget and learned to appraise the world shrewdly1. The relationship between him and his mother grew closer, and the influence of her patient strength of character, the strongest influence in his early life, became heavier2. At home Eliza discounted the biblical warning that money was the root of all evil and in fact she inspired in John D the love of its capture, of its doubling and tripling through thoughtful management5. One day young John D had the opportunity to learn how advantageously money could be invested, how to make it work for him instead of the other way around. A local farmer wished to borrow $50 for a year and was willing to pay 7% interest and Eliza suggested that John D lend the money2.
However much John D might have been secretly attracted to his bold and amoral father, his mother’s way was his way4. He would always remember her plight: a humiliated, abandoned woman spoken of by gossips, who spent long nights alone in her rocking chair staring into the fire, with a Bible on her lap and a corncob pipe in her mouth4.
John D recognized that he was not a self-made man, but had been cradled in capitalism by his mother; “I had a peculiar training in my home” he once said, “it seemed to be a business training from the beginning”5. Eliza’s needs took precedence over Standard Oil business and if she fell ill while John D was at a meeting he rushed home, went straight to her bedside, took her hand and said, “there, there, Mother. It’s all right”1. Part of John D’s uniqueness as a businessman and philanthropist was his remaining a Mama’s Boy5. In 1889 when Eliza’s death seemed imminent, John D was told that his father would not attend the funeral1. Something snapped in John D when his father offended his mother’s memory and John D made sure that the minister announced that his mother had died a widow1.
In addition to being devoted to Eliza, John D learned from her a deep respect for women in general. Unlike other moguls of the Gilded Age, he never looked upon women in purely ornamental terms1. John D’s wife, Cettie, was the final judge on letters written by himself and Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil co-founder and close friend1. John D said of Cettie “her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice I would be a poor man”4. When Cettie died in 1915 her coffin was lowered into the Earth beside Eliza’s with a gap left in between them so that John D could spend eternity flanked by his two favorite people1.
In 1918 John D traveled to Ormond Beach, Florida, his new Winter and Spring home. His place was called The Casements and he chose the location because it was right across the street from the Hotel Ormond, a place owned by Henry Flagler. At The Casements John D liked to welcome visitors while sitting in Eliza’s old rocking chair1. In 1934 John D decided to cease his seasonal rotation of residences and pick one place to live out his final days. He abandoned Kykuit, the family mansion in Westchester County New York, and moved to The Casements, where he died peacefully in his sleep on May 23, 1937.
Today there are hundreds of descendants of John Davison Rockefeller and the name Davison, specifically John Davison, lives on as a dynastic designation. It is given to the firstborn son in each generation of the direct line from the family patriarch. Although the name is commonly abbreviated as John D. Rockefeller, the name Davison is the preeminent mark of honor, of lineage. The two living representatives of this line are John Davison Rockefeller IV, a United States Senator from West Virginia, and his son John Davison Rockefeller V, a PhD candidate who is currently writing his dissertation on early 20th century American literature.
Eliza Davison named her firstborn son after her father, John Davison. As described above, this name has carried forward through time as a dynastic designation. What many people may not realize, however, is that the name John Davison was already dynastic long before John Davison Rockefeller was born. My research indicates that Eliza’s father was John Davison III, who was born in 1775 in New Jersey to John Davison Junior and his wife Elizabeth. Eliza was named after her paternal grandmother, Eliza being short for Elizabeth. Further, John Davison Rockefeller named his firstborn child Elizabeth. John Davison Junior was born in 1737 in New Jersey to John Davison Senior and his wife Sarah. John Davison Senior was born in 1710 in New Jersey. Records indicate that the Davisons hailed from Middlesex County, New Jersey, which is in the north-central part of the state and is the home of Rutgers University. It may be that the unbroken line of John Davisons stretches even farther back than 1710 but I’ve not been able to find any records. While genealogical research is never 100% certain, I am fairly confident in what I’ve been able to uncover so far and I am always open to any data and/or corrections from other researchers.
According to Ron Chernow, author of Titan1, the acclaimed biography of John Davison Rockefeller: “in the early 1900s, as Rockefeller vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of the world's richest man, a spirited rivalry arose between France and Germany, with each claiming to be Rockefeller's ancestral land. Assorted genealogists stood ready, for a sizable fee, to manufacture a splendid royal lineage for the oilman” and “the Rockefellers’ German lineage has been clearly established in the Rhine valley dating back to at least the early 1600s”. This rivalry between France and Germany may well have been much ado about nothing as John D was, like his mother, a Davison.
To my knowledge, no one has traced John Davison Rockefeller’s maternal ancestry back to its European roots so I will take it upon myself to provide a general history of the name Davison. Davison is of course a variation of the name Davidson and I am fond of telling people that my ancestors could not spell. My surname is commonly misspelled as Davidson and so numerous times throughout my life I have had to specify that there is no “d” in the middle. This is rather ironic given that I am trying to put the “D” back in the middle of John D. Rockefeller. Although most people think of Davidson as an English name, it is in fact a Scottish clan of Pictish origin. The founder of the Clan Davidson was a man named David Dubh who lived in Scotland in the 14th century, his descendants becoming the sons of David. The first known migrant to North America was Nicholas Davidson, born in Scotland and settled in Connecticut in 1640. The Davidson family motto is “Sapienter Si Sincere”, which means “Wisely If Sincerely”, rather fitting for Eliza Davison and her son John.
In The End
This is the story of a mother and child reunion. It is the story of Eliza Davison and of John Davison Rockefeller, perhaps the greatest business titan ever to have lived. Eliza Davison was a quiet, devoted Christian mother and she continued the dynasty of John Davison through her son. John Davison Rockefeller resembled Eliza physically, mentally and spiritually and she deserves better historical representation than simply being the “D” in the middle of her son’s name. Today John D is buried next to his mother, his feelings for her to be made known for all eternity. The heritage of Eliza Davison and her son has been bound up and buried for many years but the truth shall set them free.
Christopher John Davison
Intellectual Capitalism, Information is Power Note: I am not a relative of Eliza Davison nor do I make any personal lineage claim to her Rockefeller descendants.
1. Chernow, Ron. 1998. Titan. Random House, Inc., New York, New York. 774 pages.
2. Nevins, Allan. 1940. John D. Rockefeller: The heroic age of American enterprise. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York. 683 pages.
3. Flynn, John T. 1932. God’s Gold. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, New York. 520 pages.
4. Collier, Peter and Horowitz, David. 1976. The Rockefellers: an American dynasty. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York. 746 pages.
5. Stasz, Clarice. 1995. The Rockefeller women: an intimate portrait of an American dynasty. St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York. 380 pages.