Not all the wealthy figures of the past were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, some of history’s most famous business tycoons and royals spent their youths as peasants, poor immigrants and even slaves. Despite coming from surprisingly humble beginnings, these people climbed to the top through hard work, luck and—in some cases— sheer ruthlessness. Get the facts on seven people who defied the odds to establish themselves among the richest and most powerful figures of their time.
The life of Empress Catherine I of Russia could easily be confused with something out of a fairy tale. The future queen was born in 1684 into a family of Lithuanian peasants, and was orphaned at the age of 3 after both her parents died from the plague. Taken in by a pastor, she spent her youth as a housemaid in Marienburg in modern day Latvia. After Russia conquered the city in 1702, 18-year-old Catherine was captured and taken to Moscow. She became a servant in the home of a high-ranking government official, and it was there that she met the Russian Emperor Peter the Great. Despite being uneducated and illiterate, Catherine charmed the emperor with her beauty and wit, and the two soon began a passionate affair.
The couple married in 1712, and Catherine went on to become Peter’s closest confidante during a period of sweeping political and social reforms. She was named Russia’s first female empress upon his death in 1725, cementing her astonishing rise from orphaned peasant to monarch. Catherine died after only 16-months on the throne, but during her short reign she consolidated her power and reduced the size of the empire’s bloated military. Not forgetting her own humble origins, she also won the love of the people by dispensing generous gifts to the poor.
Often described as the quintessential “rags to riches” tale, the story of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s rise begins in 1835 in a small one-room home in Dunfermline, Scotland. Born into a family of destitute laborers, Carnegie received little schooling before his family emigrated to America in 1848. Arriving in Pennsylvania, the 13-year-old soon got a job in a textile mill, where he earned only $1.20 per week.
Carnegie went on to labor as a messenger boy and factory worker before eventually winning a job as a secretary and telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad. By 1859, the enterprising young worker had become superintendent of the railroad’s western division. Carnegie invested his newfound wealth in a variety of businesses including a bridgework company, a telegraph operation and—most famously—a steel mill. By the turn of the century, his Carnegie Steel Company had blossomed into an industrial empire, and Carnegie became the richest man in the world after he sold out to J.P. Morgan for $480 million. Proclaiming that, “the main who dies rich dies disgraced,” Carnegie spent his later years donating his fortune to charitable causes, eventually giving away some $350 million.
In one of history’s most unlikely rises to power, a Chinese peasant brought down the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty. The story begins in the 14th century, when a young orphan named Zhu Yuangzhang joined a monastery in a desperate attempt to avoid starvation. Following a stint as a mendicant beggar, the young wanderer took up with a band of marauders who had rebelled against the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty.
A natural military leader, Zhu Yuangzhang quickly rose through the ranks of the bandits, and by 1355 he had taken the reins of the whole rebel army. Ruthless and determined, the orphan general went on to wage a bloody war against both the Mongols and his Chinese rivals for power. In 1368—the same year his forces drove the Mongols out of China—Zhu declared himself emperor of the Ming Dynasty and took the name Hongwu. While he famously returned China to native rule, the Hongwu emperor’s 30-year reign was also marked by paranoia and extreme violence. In 1380, for example, he ordered the execution of 30,000 people after learning of a potential conspiracy to overthrow his government.
Most Byzantine emperors gained power through a strict line of succession, but Justin I managed to take the throne by sheer force of will. A peasant by birth, this self-made royal spent his youth as a sheepherder in the Balkans. Hoping to find fortune and adventure, he eventually struck out for Constantinople in the late 4th century. Arriving in the capital city with nothing but the clothes on his back, Justin lucked into employment as a guard for the Byzantine Emperor Leo.
Though he could neither read nor write, Justin was respected for his bravery and skill as a fighter, and he eventually rose to command the palace guard. When the childless emperor Anastasius I died in 518, Justin used his influence to win over his fellow soldiers and seize the throne for himself. With this coup, the 68-year old completed a miraculous rise from poor shepherd to sovereign of the Eastern Roman Empire. The peasant emperor’s nine-year reign is not remembered as particularly important, but it did set the stage for his much more influential successor, Justinian I, who attempted to restore the old Roman empire by recapturing much of Western Europe.
Although she was born a slave, Bridget “Biddy” Mason eventually found fortune as one of America’s first female real estate tycoons. Following a youth spent in bondage in Mississippi, Mason travelled to Utah in 1847 after her owner converted to Mormonism. The family later moved to California, where Mason petitioned for and won her freedom in 1856.
Mason spent the next decade in Los Angeles working as a midwife, and became one of the city’s first black landowners after she bought a small piece of property for $250. An astute businesswoman, Mason later sold some of the land for a profit, and went on to build commercial properties in some of L.A.’s fastest-growing business districts. In time, her shrewd land deals saw her amass a fortune of some $300,000. Along the way, the woman known as “Grandma Mason” also gave generously to charity and disaster relief, helped feed the poor and financed the founding of the city’s first black church.
Though he came to America as a penniless immigrant, Henry Miller became one of the nation’s biggest landowners and helped shape the history of the western frontier. Born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser, this future cattle baron left his home in Germany at 14 and arrived stateside in 1846. He eventually moved to California, taking on the moniker “Henry Miller” after accidentally buying a non-transferrable steamer ticket from a travelling salesman of the same name.
Miller arrived in San Francisco with only six dollars to his name, and worked seven days a week as a butcher’s assistant before saving enough money to open his own shop. As settlers poured into California, the enterprising German expanded his business by purchasing a herd of cattle and several thousand acres of grazing territory. Over the next 50 years, Miller built a cattle empire and amassed some 1.3 million acres of territory in California, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho. He also invested heavily in irrigation systems that helped transform thousands of acres of desert into fertile grazing land. By the time of his death in 1916, Miller’s fortune was estimated to be around $40 million.
Famed novelist Charles Dickens often depicted characters navigating their way through hardscrabble childhoods, and it turns out these fictional stories weren’t so different from his own youth in 1820s England. While Dickens was able to attend school as a child, his father squandered the family finances and was eventually sent to prison for not paying his debts. While the rest of the family joined his father behind bars, 12-year-old Charles was sent to labor in a shoe polish factory to help make money. Condemned to an assembly line, he was forced to work grueling 10-hour days in exchange for only six shillings a week.
Dickens was able to return to school after his father repaid the family’s debts, but was later forced to leave a second time to earn money for his family as an office clerk. He eventually graduated to a career as a journalist and writer, winning his first taste of success with 1836’s “The Pickwick Papers.” Dickens would go on to achieve great fame and wealth as one of the 19th century’s literary masters, but the experience of toiling in a rat infested factory haunted him for the rest of his life. In fact, many details from his days as a child laborer later found their way into novels like “David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations.”