Rockefeller Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rockefeller  Surname Meaning

The place-name of Rockenfield near Neuwied in the Rhineland in Germany is believed to be the source of the Rockefeller name. Its roots are rocke meaning “rye” and field meaning “open country.”

Rockefeller Surname Resources on The Internet

Rockefeller Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (Rhineland)
  • to America (Ohio and New York)

Genealogists have suggested that the Rockefeller line might have gone back to French Huguenots who had fled to Germany in the 16th century. The first in the German line was Goddard Rockenfeller, born in the Rhineland in 1590. His grandson Johan Peter Rockefeller set off for America in the early 1700’s. He settled in Arnwell township, New Jersey in 1723.

America. It was a descendant John D. Rockefeller who established the family’s name and fortune in the 19th century. His beginnings were impropitious. He was the second of six children whom his father “Doc” Rockefeller had abandoned in the 1850’s to live with another woman.

Rockefeller started his business in Cleveland Ohio, where his family had moved in 1853. In 1870, he founded the Standard Oil Company and aggressively ran it until he officially retired in 1897. As kerosene and gasoline grew in importance, Rockefeller’s wealth soared and he became the world’s richest man. He was an American oil magnate who revolutionized the petroleum industry and later defined the structure of modern philanthropy.

His son John D. Rockefeller Jr was a noted philanthropist and the father of five famous Rockefeller brothers, John D, Nelson, Laurence, Winthrop and David:

  • John D. became a major philanthropist like his father;
  • Laurance a venture capitalist and conservationist
  • Nelson and Winthrop state governors with Nelson going on to become Vice President under Gerald Ford;
  • and David an internationally renowned banker.

These brothers were part of the third generation of the descendants of John D. Rockefeller. The fourth generation has been even more varied in its activities, from Michael Rockefeller, the anthropologist who died at such a young age, to Abby Rockefeller, the left-wing environmentalist. The fifth and sixth generations have followed. The total number of blood relative descendants now number about 150.

Family legacies have included the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Center in New York, and Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art in New York – both founded by Rockefellers.

Rockefeller Surname Miscellany

Rockenfeller and Roquefeuil.  The first proven ancestor of the Rockefeller line was Goddard Rockenfeller.  He was born in 1590 in Neuwied in the Rhineland and lived with his wife Magdalena in a small village named Rockenfeld.

Some have sought to link these Rockenfellers with the French Roquefeuil family, a family which took its name from the chateau of Roquefeuil in the mountains of Creyssels in southeast France.  A coat of arms was granted to Raymond de Roquefeuil in 1250.

These Roquefeuils made large fortunes from their vineyards in this area of France.  The family enjoyed their position until the middle of the 16th century when they were driven from France as a result of the religious wars of the time.  Some of them sought refuge in Holland and Germany. 

John D. Rockefeller in His Own Words.  The story of his first business experience was told in Random Reminiscences of Men and Events, the only book that John D. Rockefeller ever published.

“When I was seven or eight years old, I engaged in my first business enterprise with the assistance of my mother.  I owned some turkeys and she presented me with the curds from the milk to feed them. I took care of the birds myself and sold them all in businesslike fashion.  My receipts were all profits, as I had nothing to do with the expense account, and my receipts were kept as carefully as I knew how.”

At the age of 86 he wrote the following little ditty to sum up his life.

  • “I was early taught to work as well as play.
  • My life has been one long, happy holiday;
  • Full of work and full of play,
  • I dropped the worry on the way.
  • And God was good to me every day.”

But there was foresight and cunning in him as well.  In order to create the monopoly that was the Standard Oil Trust, he showed himself to be a ruthless operator.  He would undercut his competition, engage in espionage and price wars, press for discounts on oil shipments, buy out competing refiners, and make his own secret deals.  Ida Tarbell documented the dark side of these activities in her 1904 expose, The History of the Standard Oil Company.

John D. Rockefeller and His Descendants

  • John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), oil magnate
  • Edith Rockefeller McCormick (1872-1932), Chicago socialite
  • John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960), noted philanthropist
  • – John D. Rockefeller III (1906-1978), another noted philanthropist
  • — Jay Rockefeller (born 1937), Governor and Senator of West Virginia
  • – Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979), New York Governor and US Vice President
  • — Michael Rockefeller (1938-1961), young anthropologist who disappeared in New Guinea
  • – Laurance Rockefeller (1910-2004), venture capitalist and conservationist
  • – Winthrop Rockefeller (1912-1973), Governor of Arkansas
  • — Win Paul Rockefeller (1948-2006), Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas
  • – David Rockefeller (born 1915), Chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank
  • — David Rockefeller Jr. (born 1941), noted philanthropist
  • — Abby Rockefeller (born 1943), left-wing environmentalist
  • — Eileen Rockefeller Growald (born 1952), also a philanthropist

The third generation of the family included the brothers John D, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David.  The fourth generation is generically known as “the Cousins” (24 in all, with 21 still living), while the younger family members are known as the “Fifth/Sixth” generation.  Family get-togethers are held at the Playhouse at the Pocantico family estate in Westchester county in June and December of each year.

The corporate, financial and personal affairs of the family – numbering the 150 blood relatives of John D. Rockefeller – are run from the family office, Room 5600, in Rockefeller Center in New York.  Room 5600 is also the base for the family historian, Peter J. Johnson, who assisted David Rockefeller with his Memoirs.

The Building of Rockefeller Center.  In the late 1920’s the Metropolitan Opera became interested in the twelve acres of land between 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues in midtown Manhattan for the construction of its new home, along with several office towers.  John D. Rockefeller Jr. was no opera fan.  But the idea of erecting a modern urban complex was very appealing to him.

After purchasing a lease for the land, Rockefeller suddenly found himself with the entire burden of the project when the Metropolitan Opera withdrew after the stock market crash of October 1929. Although the Rockefellers were also hit by Black Tuesday, losing half of their fortune, they managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans.

Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers.  But the impact of the undertaking was felt even more deeply on the city’s morale, boosted by Rockefeller’s confident move.

Rockefeller’s faith in progress was also evidenced by his choice of a modern architectural style, Art Deco.  The architects designed a complex that consisted of 14 limestone buildings, including a 70-story tower taken over by RCA.  The vertical thrust of the ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies.

Construction proceeded at a steady pace.  Rockefeller, like his father, would supervise all the details, a golden four-foot ruler at hand.  In charge of finding new tenants for the center was Rockefeller’s son Nelson, taking on a prominent role in the family business for the first time.  Nelson also dealt with the well-known artists hired to grace the buildings and plazas with murals, decorative panels and sculptures, among them the controversial Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

Rockefeller Center was the first development in the world to include offices, retail stores, restaurants, broadcasting studios, and entertainment venues in one complex.  Radio City Music Hall, opened in 1932, stunned the audiences of the time with its breathtaking gold-leafed proscenium arch.  Another crowd-pleaser was the skating rink, built in 1936.

Michael Rockefeller’s Disappearance. Michael Rockefeller was the youngest son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his first wife Mary.  A young anthropologist, he disappeared in 1961 during an expedition in the Azmat region of SW New Guinea.

Rockefeller and his Dutch companion Rene Wassing were in a 40-foot dugout canoe about three miles from shore when it was swamped and overturned. After drifting for some time, Rockefeller said to Wassing “I think I can make it” and swam for shore.  Wassing was rescued the next day.  But Rockefeller was never seen again, despite an intensive and lengthy search effort.  His body was never found.  He was declared legally dead in 1964.

Rockefeller was thought to have drowned or been attacked by a shark or a crocodile.  Paul Toohey’s book Rocky goes West suggests that he was killed by natives, possibly because he became an inadvertent victim of a revenge attack against Dutch patrols in the area.

Many of the Asmat artifacts that Rockefeller collected are part of the Michael C. Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Rockefeller Names

  • John D. Rockefeller was the American oil magnate who revolutionized the burgeoning petroleum industry and, in so doing, became the world’s richest man.
  • Nelson Rockefeller was the 44th Vice President of the United States, serving under Gerald Ford.
  • David Rockefeller was chairman and chief executive of Chase Manhattan Bank from 1969 to 1981.

Rockefeller Numbers Today

  • 500 in America (most numerous in New York)

Rockefeller and Like Surnames

From our selection, these are the surnames of those who have made their business mark in America – as pioneers, inventors, developers, or corporate leaders – over its long history from colonial to modern times.



Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *