Vanderbilt Surname Meaning, History & Origin
The German and Dutch word bulte
meaning “mound” and describing someone who lived by a low hill was the
basis of the place-name of De Bilt that lay just northeast of Utrecht in
Vanderbilt Resources on
- Cornelius Vanderbilt. The story of Cornelius
- Vanderbilt Family Genealogy. Vanderbilt genealogy
- Vanderbilt Sketches. Vanderbilt stories.
Jan Aertszoon or Aertson was a Dutch
farmer from the village of De Bilt near Utrecht who emigrated to the
Dutch colony of New Netherland as an indentured servant in 1650.
Jan’s village name was later added to the Dutch “Van der” (from the) to
create “Van der Bilt.”
America. The prominence
of the Vanderbilt family in America began with Cornelius Vanderbilt,
the fourth of nine children born in 1794 to a Staten Island family of
modest means which ran a ferry service to Manhattan. His father,
the first to spell his name as van Derbilt, was born in 1764 and was
reared in the home of an uncle where he worked for his room and
left school at eleven and started his business career with a steamboat,
which operated in a ferry service between New Brunswick in Canada and
He went on to build a shipping and railroad empire that, during the
century, made him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Although the Commodore himself always
occupied a modest home, members of his family would use their wealth to
resplendent family tomb at the
cemetery on Staten Island and a number of magnificent mansions
– on Fifth
Avenue in New York, in Newport, and along the Hudson.
The family had grown immeasurably richer by
the time of the death of Cornelius’s son William.
H. Vanderbilt died suddenly in December
1885, only eight years after his father.
The world was astounded to learn that he had more than doubled
family fortune in that short time, leaving him the richest man in the
Their descendants were
to dominate what came to be known as
the Gilded Age, a period when Vanderbilt men were the merchant princes
American life through their prominence in the business world, in New York society, and
as patrons of
the arts throughout the world.
Vanderbilts showed less interest in business and more in yachting,
racing, and fast cars. Much of the
Vanderbilt wealth ended up being dissipated over the 20th
distant cousin Arthur T. Vanderbilt published Fortune’s Children:
of the House of Vanderbilt in 1989.
Only Gloria Vanderbilt
her son Anderson Cooper have made names for themselves in the modern
The First Vanderbilts in New York. In the
first directory of the city of New York, the only Vanderbilts whose
appeared were not the Vanderbilts. They
were Dutch to be sure and spelt their name “Van der Bilt.”
The most prominent among them was a truckman.
At that time in the early 1800’s the
Vanderbilts were farmers on Staten Island and not listed in New York.
The Commodore and the Bellona. In 1817
at the age of 23 Cornelius Vanderbilt recognized the future, sold his sailboats
and went to work for Thomas Gibbons who owned a steamboat.
Once he learned how to operate the steamboat,
he persuaded Gibbons to build a steamboat that he himself had designed – the Bellona. This vessel was to
operate in a ferry service
between New Brunswick in Canada, New York and New Jersey.
The ferryboat business was tough; but Cornelius
learnt how to survive. At one point he
charged passengers on the New Jersey to Manhattan run just a dollar, below
cost, rather than the going monopoly rate of four dollars.
He made up his losses by raising the price of
food and drink in the steamboat’s bar.
He went 60 straight days evading the New York City police who
trying to arrest him for violating the monopoly laws.
the Commodore ran the boat, his wife was
up to business ventures of her own. The
couple had purchased a New Brunswick hotel that was in ill repair and
it. Sophia named it Bellona Hall after
her husband’s steamboat. She apparently
did a great job running the hotel for the twelve years it was under her
command. The hotel attracted so much
business for the line that it significantly boosted the Commodore’s
The Commodore and His Descendants
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), the Commodore
– William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), he died the richest man in the world
– Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899), the eldest son who assumed the family leadership
– Cornelius (Neily) Vanderbilt III (1873-1942), eldest son who inherited little
– Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (1898-1974), a newspaper publisher who married seven times
– Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), founder of the Whitney Museum in New York
– Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1875-1915), he died in the Lusitania sinking
– William Henry Vanderbilt II (1901-1981), briefly Governor of Rhode Island
– Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr. (1912-1999), equestrian enthusiast
– George Washington Vanderbilt III (1914-1961), yachtsman and explorer
– Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880-1925), equestrian enthusiast
– Gloria Vanderbilt (born 1924), the celebrity who launched designer jeans
– Anderson Cooper (born 1967), the distinguished CNN reporter
– William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920), the man who succeeded his brother Cornelius as family head
– Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964), she married the Duke of Marlborough
– William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), keen sailor and lover of fast cars
– Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884-1970), yachtsman and bridge player
– Florence Vanderbilt Twombly (1854-1952), the Commodore’s favorite and his last surviving grandchild
– George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914), country gentleman at his North Carolina Biltmore estate.
Vanderbilts at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. The Moravian Cemetery, opened in 1740 in
what was then a farming community, was originally
made available as a free cemetery in order to discourage families from
farm burial plots.
mausoleum, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and constructed in 1886, is
the family’s private section within the cemetery. Both
the Commodore and his son had donated
land to the church. Their mausoleum is a
replica of a Romanesque church in Arles in France.
The landscaped grounds around the Vanderbilt
mausoleum were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of
in New York. It is the largest private
tomb in America. In the tomb lie
Cornelius and seven other family members.
The tomb is said to be haunted. A woman was once killed when trying to open
the iron gate of the tomb. It fell on
her. It has been said that if you bring
flowers to the tomb you will be chased by a ghost in a gray suit. Legend has it that if you take a picture
there, either the person in the picture will not be in it when you
or there will be another person in the picture who was not there
The Two Mrs. Vanderbilts in New York Society. William
Kissam Vanderbilt married twice. Both of his wives
were to make their mark in New York society.
At one time the Vanderbilts had not been socially acceptable. While they may have been the wealthiest
family in the nation, they had not been recognized by Mrs. Astor. It was Mrs. Astor’s contention that
fortune had to be at least two generations old and that one had to be
unencumbered by work in trade. Therefore
the Vanderbilts were scorned as nouveau riche and unacceptable for
into New York’s elite “400.”
to bring the Vanderbilt family the social status that she felt they
Alva Vanderbilt – the first Mrs. Vanderbilt – christened their Fifth
chateau in March 1883 with a masquerade ball for 1,000 guests, costing
reported $3 million. An oft-repeated
story, probably apocryphal, relates that Mrs. Vanderbilt purposely
send an invitation to Mrs. Astor’s daughter Carrie.
Supposedly this forced Mrs. Astor to come
calling in order to secure an invitation for her daughter.
the Vanderbilt marriage was not to last long.
Alva was strong-willed, arrogant, and
opinionated, traits that were to intensify rather than to moderate over
life. She and William divorced. They both subsequently remarried, she to
become Mrs. Belmont and he to wed Anne Harriman, the daughter of the
Soon Mrs. Belmont and the
second Mrs. Vanderbilt became cut-throat rivals.
Mrs. Belmont opened the feud by refusing to welcome at her
anyone who had entertained Mrs. Vanderbilt.
The ladies would joust for prominence in their own circles and
attention in the society pages of the New York press.
Mrs. Belmont gained an initial advantage by
espousing the cause of the suffragettes, thereby putting her name on
news as well. The second Mrs. Vanderbilt
made her name with her work with the Red Cross in France during the
After the war Mrs. Belmont retreated to France
and the second Mrs.
Vanderbilt, who divided her time between New York and Paris,
leadership of the so called “400.” As
late as 1935, Mrs. Vanderbilt was listed by Paris dressmakers as one of
best dressed women in the world. She
died in 1940. Twelve years later, Mrs.
Twombly, the last surviving granddaughter of the Commodore, died. Her death at the age of 98 was said to have
the final curtain for “real society” in New York.
Death on the Lusitania. In 1912
Alfred Vanderbilt had made a last minute decision not to return to America on the Titanic when it made its tragic voyage.
Ironically three years later he
boarded the Lusitania in New York
bound for Liverpool. On May 7, off the
coast of Ireland, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship and the giant ocean liner sank within 18 minutes.
his valet helped others into lifeboats and then Vanderbilt gave his
to save a female passenger. He had promised the young mother of a small
he would locate an extra life-vest for her. Failing
to do so, he offered her his own life-vest,
which he then proceeded to tie on to her since she was holding her
in her arms at the time. Many considered
his actions to be very brave as he could not swim, knew that there were
other life-vests or lifeboats available, and yet he still gave away his
chance of surviving to the young mother and child.
He and his valet were among the 1,198
passengers who did not survive the sinking. His
body was never recovered.
Little Gloria – Happy at Last. Not even
Hollywood in its heyday could have dreamed up a melodrama so
electrifying as the one that swirled around 10-year-old “Little Gloria” Vanderbilt in 1934 when
she became the object of a scandalous custody battle between her
none too bright mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her rich powerful
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (whose private life included several
a pseudonymous novel about lesbianism).
What a cast of characters there were, everything from royals
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s twin, was the mistress of the Prince of
grande dames and a hideously possessive nurse, to the terrified little
herself, told that her mother might kill her.
Little Gloria did survive. She
married four times, to the agent Pat DiCicco, the conductor Leopold
the movie director Sidney Lumet, and the writer Wyatt Emery Cooper. In her fifties she ventured into the fashion
business. In 1976 the Indian designer
Mohan Murjani proposed launching a line of designer jeans carrying
name embossed on the back pocket. Despite
her shyness, Gloria was one of the first designers to make public
to promote her product. And Gloria
Vanderbilt jeans were launched. More
recently, she has been the author of four memoirs and three novels and
a regular contributor to publications like The New York Times, Vanity
Fair, and Elle.
- Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, build a shipping and railroad empire that, during the 19th century, made him one of the
wealthiest men in the world.
- Harold Vanderbilt was a
successful sportsman, winning yachting America’s Cup on no fewer than three occasions.
- Amy Vanderbilt, indirectly related to the main Vanderbilt family, was an American authority on
etiquette. In 1952 she published her best-selling book Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette.
Select Vanderbilt Numbers Today
- 600 in America (most numerous in New York)
Select Vanderbilt and Like Surnames.
These are Dutch-originated names, Dutch surnames that found their way in the 17th century to New York and to South Africa. Here are some of the Dutch surnames that you can check out.
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