Rockefeller was the second of six children born in Richford, New York, to William Avery Rockefeller (November 13, 1810 – May 11, 1906) and Eliza Davison (September 12, 1813 – March 28, 1889). Genealogists trace some of his ancestors to French Huguenots who fled to Germany in the 17th century. His father, first a lumberman, then a traveling salesman, billed himself as a “botanic physician” and sold elixirs. The locals referred to the mysterious but fun-loving man as "Big Bill," and "Devil Bill". He was a sworn foe of conventional morality, who had opted for a vagabond existence and who returned to his family infrequently. Throughout his life, William Avery Rockefeller gained a reputation for shady schemes rather than productive work. Eliza, a homemaker and devout Baptist, struggled to maintain a semblance of stability at home, as William was frequently gone for extended periods. She also put up with his philandering and his double life, which included bigamy. Thrifty by nature and necessity, she taught her son that "willful waste makes woeful want." Young Rockefeller did his share of the regular household chores, and earned extra money raising turkeys, selling potatoes and candy, and eventually loaning small sums of money to neighbors. He followed his father’s advice to "trade dishes for platters", and always get the better part of any deal. Big Bill once bragged, "I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ‘em sharp."
In spite of his father’s absences and frequent family moves, young Rockefeller was a well-behaved, serious and studious boy. His contemporaries described him as reserved, earnest, religious, methodical, and discreet. He was an excellent debater, and expressed himself precisely. He also had a deep love of music, and dreamed of it as a possible career. Early on, he displayed an excellent mind for numbers and detailed accounting.
Rockefeller age 18, circa 1857
When he was a boy, his family moved to Moravia,...