Is it possible to track the history of someone's fortune over centuries?
January 26, 2013 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Let's say someone (anyone) made a fortune in the early 18th century - would it be possible to track their fortune over time to see where it is in the present day? I can imagine this being relatively simple if the money just stayed in the family, but what if you wanted to track the fortunes made during something like the Gold Rush?
posted by domakesaypat to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a complete answer to your question, but that's exactly what one family did with their own family's wealth, which originated from the slave trade, in the documentary Traces of the Trade.
posted by Miko at 7:31 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's the house of Thurn und Taxis, a German royal family that has made incredible amounts of money by building castles, delivering mail, and brewing beer. I understand their fortune is fairly well-documented.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:45 PM on January 26, 2013

Hetty Green's story is an example of a fortune traced pretty clearly from the American whaling industry into finance.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on January 26, 2013

I think this would quickly get too complicated. If, for example, our John Doe makes $1 million in the 1800s, and it accumulates $2.5 mil. in interest in the intervening 150 years, then Is the Doe fortune of 1950 (3.5 million) the same fortune as the Doe fortune of 1800, especially considering that this hypothetical fortune would be split between all the surviving descendant Does (some of whom will have done better than others w/r/t investment)? I don't really think it would be. It seems that money is too fungible, and fortunes too muddled by time.
posted by DGStieber at 9:11 PM on January 26, 2013

I think it would be easier to trace a fortune backwards in time and see where it originated and where it's been, than to follow money forward in time.
posted by windykites at 12:12 AM on January 27, 2013

Is it possible? Sure. If the work has been done and made public. Otherwise, not really. People's personal assets aren't really subject to public scrutiny most of the time.

I think you may find that tracking the people is at least as hard as tracking the money. First you need to identify someone that made money in the Gold Rush. Then you need to figure out about how much money they had when they died, and to whom they left it. In other words, you need to recreate an entire family tree. This is going to be hard.
posted by valkyryn at 3:50 AM on January 27, 2013

Then you need to figure out about how much money they had when they died, and to whom they left it.

Well, more than that, you need to look at what they did with their money during their lifetime as well, in terms of gifts and investments that yielded more money (or didn't). For instance, at the last museum I worked in, one of the houses was built by a guy who made barrels - a middle-class craftsman. He went to Cuba for work, and while there he won the lottery - a princely amount. He came back to his hometown and invested it all in real estate, building rental houses for other craftsman-level people of the city. We're still identifying the houses he built or operated. And people like this often gave substantial gifts to their children, extended-family relatives, community industries and endeavors, other entrepreneurs, etc., so their wealth was moving around, and impacting other people's wealth, even before they died.

I agree that it's totally not impossible, just a fuck-ton of data. Historians do this sort of thing all the time. The thing is you can't pick just anybody - you need to find a family who has a good consistent presence in the documentary record. Fortunately when people do stuff with big chunks of money there is usually a record of it, but it is not always consistently good, or easy to find.

I thought of another example: the currently popular book The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is about the author's reconstruction of the movements of a family collection of Japanese art through the generations. His research takes him to the family's early days of gathering wealth in the European grain trade in the eighteenth century, through the Holocaust and beyond. Along the way a lot happens to their wealth.

Is the Doe fortune of 1950 (3.5 million) the same fortune as the Doe fortune of 1800, especially considering that this hypothetical fortune would be split between all the surviving descendant

Yes, it can fairly be considered the "Same" fortune though it didn't have the same power at all times. It's a basic principle of studies of wealth and inequality that wealth moves through family lines and, even if squandered eventually, materially changed the lives of everyone who lived with it even a little bit.
posted by Miko at 5:58 AM on January 27, 2013

Theoretically for a wealthy enough family you could track estates and assets such as real estate or public companies, but most people would not have such detailed financial records in the available archives. Heck, a lot of places have already chucked their pre-20th century property rolls.

The main issue is that very few piles of wealth actually continue on as piles of wealth -- they get distributed among beneficiaries and generally get spent, not invested. There are very few families who are able to muster the generational will and ability to continue to accumulate or at least retain wealth, something that has affected the aristocracy of Great Britain, for instance (see the whole "entailment" plot device of Downton Abbey for an illustrative example); many of the great houses have had to be sold, many people with titles cannot keep up the properties that once went with the title.

As someone who's done both history and genealogy, I can tell you that this will be hard unless you already have a very handy corpus of data relating to one particular fortune and its inheritors. Go back a generation or two and you already have mounting obstacles to just getting birth, death, and marriage/children records. Go back three and you have quickly vanishing opportunities to find coherent real property records, let alone impermanent things like stock ownership.

Finally, I'd just ask what the goals are here. Demonstrating that someone today inherited most of their wealth, or that some of it ultimately came from a single source? I find that to be a preoccupation of conspiracy theorists. The Kennedy family fortune came in part from smuggling liquor during prohibition, it's pretty widely known -- but I'm not sure exactly what that tells us about the family today. You can look at the Bush family fortune with similarly jaded eyes. Similarly, what the descendants did with the money, in specific form, tells us very little about the person who originally amassed it.

What would be fascinating for social historians is a single family with detailed records over at least, say, three generations, to be able to follow the ways in which the money was distributed and reinvested and retained, as illustration of the culture or times in which it took place. This has been done in smaller form with, for example, Renaissance-era business records (for a single merchant whose papers survived more by chance than design). So I'd consider both the scope of availability and the goals of the project.
posted by dhartung at 11:36 AM on January 27, 2013

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