The Vanderbilts' prominence lasted until the mid-20th century, when the family's ten great Fifth Avenue mansions were torn down and other Vanderbilt houses were sold or turned into museums. The family's downturn in prominence has been referred to as the 'Fall of the House of Vanderbilt'. Despite the family's current reduction in fortune, the Vanderbilts were one of the wealthiest American families in history.
They were among the earliest arrivals to 17th century New Amsterdam. In a number of documents dating back to this period, they are both described as "mulatto". The prominence of the family began with Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877), the fourth of nine children born to a Staten Island family of modest and simple means. His great-great-great-grandfather, Jan Aertszoon or Aertson (1620–1705), was a Dutch farmer from the village of De Bilt in Utrecht, Netherlands, who emigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland as an indentured servant in 1650. Jan's village name was added to the Dutch "Van der" (from the) to create "Van der Bilt" which evolved into Vanderbilt when the English took control of New Amsterdam (now New York). The family is associated with the Dutch patrician Van der Bilt.
Cornelius Vanderbilt left school at age 11 and went on to build a shipping and railroad empire that, during the 19th century, made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Starting with a single boat, he grew in size and power until he was competing with Robert Fulton for dominance of the New York waterways. Fulton's company had established a monopoly on trade in and out of New York harbor. Vanderbilt, based in New Jersey at the time, flouted the law, steaming in and out of the harbor under a flag that read, "New Jersey Must Be Free!" He hired the attorney Daniel Webster to argue his case before the United States Supreme Court. Vanderbilt won, thereby establishing America's first laws of Interstate Commerce.
The Vanderbilt family lived on Staten Island until the mid 1800s, when the Commodore built a house on Washington Place. Although he always occupied a relatively modest home, members of his family would use their wealth to build magnificent mansions. Shortly before his death in 1877, Vanderbilt donated US$1 million for the establishment of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The Commodore left the majority his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt. William Henry, who outlived his father by just eight years, increased the profitability of his father's holdings, increased the reach of the New York Central and doubled the Vanderbilt wealth. He built the first of what would become many grand Vanderbilt mansions on Fifth Avenue, at 640 Fifth Avenue. His first son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was personally appointed by the Commodore to become the next "Head of House." Cornelius II built the largest private home in New York, at 1 West 58th Street, containing approximately 154 rooms, designed by George Post. His brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt, also featured prominently in the family's affairs. He also built a magnificent home on Fifth Avenue and would become one of the great architectural patrons of the Gilded Age, personally hiring the architects for (the third, and surviving) Grand Central Terminal. George Washington Vanderbilt, youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt, built Biltmore, in Asheville, North Carolina. In Newport, Rhode Island The Breakers, built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Marble House, built for William Kissam Vanderbilt, can be visited by the public.
While some of Cornelius Vanderbilt's descendants gained fame in business, others achieved prominence in other ways: such as, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1877–1915), who went down on the RMS Lusitania. His son Alfred Jr. became a noted horse breeder and racing elder. Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884–1970) gained fame as a sportsman. He invented the contract form of bridge, and won the most coveted prize in yacht racing, the America's Cup, on three occasions. His brother "Willie K" launched the Vanderbilt Cup for auto racing. William Henry Vanderbilt was Governor of Rhode Island. Gloria Vanderbilt is a noted artist, designer and author; her son, Anderson Cooper, is a television producer and personality.
Wendy Burden (born 12/18/1955), author of family memoir Dead End Gene Pool (2010); fourth great-granddaughter of Cornelius; two husbands: first, father of daughters; second, William "Tiger" Warren (died November 27, 1999)
Shirley Carter Burden – Authored The Vanderbilts in My Life: A Personal Memoir. Married Flobelle Fairbanks, niece of famed actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Ruth Twombly (c. 1884-Sept. 1954). Never married.
Hamilton M. Twombly, Jr. (1887-1906), drowned in a tragic accident at a summer camp where he was working as a camp counselor.
Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt (1825–1912), married Daniel Torrance in 1849
Maria Louisa Vanderbilt (1827–1896) married Horace Clark, then married Robert Niven
Frances Lavinia Vanderbilt (1828–1868)
Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt (1830–1882), was diagnosed with epilepsy and committed suicide in 1882
George W. Vanderbilt (1832–1836)
Mary Alicia Vanderbilt (1834–1902), married State Senator Nicholas B. La Bau (1823–1873), then married Mr. Berger
Edith La Bau (born 1854), married Edward Tiffany Dyer (born 1848)
Catherine Juliette Vanderbilt (1836–1881) married Mr. Barker, then married Mr. LaFitte
George Washington Vanderbilt (1839–1864), died during the Civil War
Family connection (chronological listing)
The following list includes etiquette guru Amy Vanderbilt although it is believed she descended from either an uncle or brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt and is therefore not an official descendant-member of this family. As well as Illegitimate grand child Deryck Gray-Vanderbilt of Alfred Vanderbilt .The list also includes Josiah Hornblower (1975) , a distant cousin of the Vanderbilt and Whitney family who was featured in the 2003 documentary Born Rich. In addition the list shows Alfred G. Vanderbilt's daughter Rita L. Vanderbilt (née. Macdonald).