Biographies, 1770s-1850s

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, 1785–1879

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, 1785–1879

Land Speculator

Bonaparte became one of the richest women in early America. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was displeased when his brother married an American, Elizabeth Patterson. He had the marriage annulled and gave her a small pension. On her own, Bonaparte invested shrewdly in stocks and American property and died wealthy.

Portrait by Firmin Massot, 1823, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society

Samuel Slater, 1768–1835

Samuel Slater, 1768–1835

Immigrant Entrepreneur

Samuel Slater committed industrial espionage, memorizing designs for machine-powered textile production as an indentured apprentice in England. He brought these designs with him to the United States in the 1790s. With financing from Rhode Island merchants, he established the first textile mill in Americas.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Samuel Slater’s indenture in an English mill, 1783

Samuel Slater’s indenture in an English mill, 1783

Paul Revere, 1734–1818

Paul Revere, 1734–1818

Master Craftsman

Revere learned the art of silver and goldsmithing from his father, Apollos Rivoire, a French Huguenot immigrant. Master of his craft shop, Revere created work that his contemporaries admired. To supplement his income as an artisan, Revere also worked as a copper plate engraver and a dentist.

Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1768, courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Joseph W. Revere, William B. Revere, and Edward H.R. Revere

Sugar tongs made by Paul Revere, silver, about 1792

Patrick Lyon, 1779–1829

Patrick Lyon, 1779–1829

Proud Blacksmith

Immigrant blacksmith Patrick Lyon was falsely convicted of robbing a bank and won a substantial restitution. After becoming a wealthy and successful businessman, he commissioned this portrait, saying: “I do not desire to be represented in the picture as a gentleman … I want you to paint me at work at my anvil, with my sleeves rolled up and a leather apron on.”

Patrick Lyon at the Forge, by John Neagle, 1826–27, courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

DeWitt Clinton, 1769–1828

DeWitt Clinton, 1769–1828

Risk-taker

Critics called it “DeWitt’s Ditch,” but the Erie Canal that Clinton fought for as governor turned out to be a stroke of economic genius. It lowered the cost of shipping from Lake Erie to New York City, cementing the city’s position as America’s financial capital.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis

DeWitt Clinton on thousand-dollar bill, 1880

DeWitt Clinton on thousand-dollar bill, 1880

Stephen Burroughs, 1765–1840

Stephen Burroughs, 1765–1840

Counterfeiter

Stephen Burroughs capitalized on the lack of a standard U.S. currency by counterfeiting paper money, which at the time was issued by local banks and had many different designs. Several times imprisoned, he fascinated early 19th-century audiences with his memoirs of his notorious life.

Counterfeit bill by Burroughs, Union Bank, Boston, Massachusetts, 1807

Counterfeit bill by Burroughs, Union Bank, Boston, Massachusetts, 1807

John Jacob Astor, 1763–1848

John Jacob Astor, 1763–1848

Profit Seeker

Though he never set a trap for beavers, Astor became America’s richest man by selling their fur. A business pioneer, he later opened markets in China, diversified into finance, and speculated in real estate. By the 1820s, his American Fur Company dominated the market from the Great Lakes to the Northwest.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Susan Mary Alsop

Jose Antonio Navarro, 1795–1871

Jose Antonio Navarro, 1795–1871

Tejano Statesman

Navarro pursued business and politics in 1830s Texas, a crossroads of commerce. Merchant, rancher, lawyer, slave-owner, and statesman, he imported and sold goods on the northern frontier of Mexico. He later increased his economic opportunities by promoting Texas independence and then statehood.

Courtesy of University of Texas, San Antonio

Isaac Bernheim, 1848–1945

Isaac Bernheim, 1848–1945

Peddler

Young Bernheim peddled thread, pins, needles, and socks from door to door with a heavy pack throughout Pennsylvania. Claiming this taught him self-reliance and independence, he later opened his own liquor distillery in Kentucky. Becoming prosperous, he gave generously to his Louisville community, funding libraries, hospitals, and a nature preserve.

Courtesy of University of Kentucky Library

Jemmy, about 1825-unknown

Enslaved Entrepreneur

Jemmy learned basket-making from his elders while enslaved in South Carolina. Most of his sweetgrass baskets were used on the plantation, but he secretly paddled the low country waterways to take others to market.

Coiled sweetgrass basket, South Carolina, mid-1800

Coiled sweetgrass basket, South Carolina, mid-1800

Sarah Winnemucca, 1844–1891

Sarah Winnemucca, 1844–1891

Translator

The daughter of a Paiute chief, Winnemucca played an important role in the national debates over Native lands. Initially an interpreter for the U.S. Army, she became a nationally recognized advocate for Paiute rights.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Elizabeth Keckley, 1818–1907

Elizabeth Keckley, 1818–1907

Dressmaker

After earning her own freedom, Elizabeth Keckley became a dressmaker and companion to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley made this christening dress for her goddaughter. With money from dressmaking, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association to assist newly freed slaves.

Courtesy of The Lincoln Museum, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Christening gown made by Elizabeth Keckley, 1866

James DeWolf, 1764–1837

James DeWolf, 1764–1837

Slave Trader

A notorious slave trader and a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, DeWolf defied government laws restricting the slave trade by evading customs inspections and using Cuba as his slave depot. His commerce in slaves, along with his cotton manufacturing interests, brought him great wealth and political prominence.

Courtesy of Rhode Island Historical Society, RHiX4213

Eli Whitney, 1765–1825

Eli Whitney, 1765–1825

Frustrated Inventor

New Englander Whitney traveled to the South to work as a teacher. In 1794, he patented a cotton gin, a new machine for taking seeds out of cotton. Whitney earned fame but not money from his invention and spent many fruitless years in court defending himself against patent thieves.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Courtroom cotton gin model, about 1800

Courtroom cotton gin model, about 1800

Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1794–1877

Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1794–1877

Transportation Tycoon

Vanderbilt built his immense fortune in shipping and in railroads. At age 16, he started his career running ferries and freight barges across the Hudson River. By the 1850s, he had expanded his fortune by employing a cutthroat approach to the competition while investing in the booming railroad business.

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Afong Moy, about 1817–Unknown

Afong Moy, about 1817–Unknown

Exploited Attraction

In 1834, China trade merchants brought the young Chinese woman Afong Moy to New York to promote Chinese products and help expand the market to the middling class. As the first Chinese woman to visit America, Moy’s coerced travel gave Americans a vivid impression of Chinese ways.

Courtesy of Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations