By Rob Wile
July 28, 2017

On Thursday, for a few hours, Jeff Bezos became America’s richest person—and, for that matter, the world’s—by leapfrogging past Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

While a drop in Amazon stock sent him back down to second place later in the day, the brief appearance has placed him in an exclusive club of men who have held the title of America’s richest.

MONEY set out to track down all the members of that club, with the help of The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates — A ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther. In their 1996 book, the authors tallied the wealthiest ever Americans, comparing them across eras by calculating their estimated worth at death as a share of U.S. gross national product at the time.

By this measure, John D. Rockefeller comes in the richest American of all time, despite having had non-inflation-adjusted wealth of $1.4 billion — well below the $22 billion Walmart’s Sam Walton had gathered by the time of the book’s publication. Rockefeller’s wealth amounted to 1/65 of the nation’s GNP at the time of his death, compared with Walton’s 1/275.

There are some gaps in the data: Klepper and Gunther set out to count the 100 wealthiest individuals in history, and there were times in the 19th century when America’s wealthiest weren’t wealthy enough to make that cut. Also, because the authors don’t specify when each of these men gained his wealth, we assumed that they had the same relative wealth for the last 20 years of their life — so, for instance, since Henry Ford ranks higher than Robert Wood Johnson Jr. overall, we assumed that Johnson didn’t become the richest man in America until after Ford’s death.

Here’s the resulting list, leading up to Gates:

1779-1799: Elias Hasket Derby

Sea merchant; first to begin extensive trade with China; known as America’s first millionaire. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/515 of U.S. GNP.

1828-1848: John Jacob Astor

Fur trader turned real estate developer; helped build the foundations of modern New York City. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/107 of U.S. GNP.

John Jacob Astor
—John Jacob Astor (Getty Images)

1848-1850: John McDonogh

Southern land holder and slave owner; known for endowing schools in New Orleans and Baltimore. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/1,278 of U.S. GNP.

1857-1877: Cornelius Vanderbilt

America’s most successful railroad baron. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/87 of U.S. GNP.

American shipping magnate and financier Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794 - 1877).
—Cornelius Vanderbilt (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1877-1892: Jay Gould

The last of America’s railroad barons. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/185 of U.S. GNP.

1892-1917: Andrew Carnegie

Industrialist and philanthropist. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/166 of U.S. GNP.

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—Andrew Carnegie (Buyenlarge/Getty Images

1917-1937: J.D. Rockefeller

Oil magnate and real estate developer. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/65 of U.S. GNP.

John Davidson Rockefeller (1839-1937), the American oil magnate and philanthropist sits writing at his desk.
—John Davidson Rockefeller (Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images)

1937-1947: Henry Ford

Auto inventor. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/231 of U.S. GNP.

Henry Ford
—Henry Ford (Apic/Getty Images_

1947-1968: Robert Wood Johnson Jr.

Chairman of Johnson & Johnson, the diversified consumer and pharma company founded by his father. Received large government contracts during WWII. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/864 of U.S. GNP.

1968-1976: J. Paul Getty

Oil tycoon. Relative wealth: 1/893 of U.S. GNP.

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J. Paul Getty (David Farrell/Getty Images

1976-1992: Sam Walton

Founder of Walmart. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/532 of U.S. GNP.

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—Sam Walton (Danny Johnston/AP

1992-1995: Warren Buffett

Founder of Berkshire Hathaway. 1995 estimated net worth: 1/532 of U.S. GNP.

Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., center, speaks with members of the media as he tours the exhibition floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
—Warren Buffett (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

1995-2017: Bill Gates

Founder of Microsoft. Current estimated net worth: 1/208 of U.S. GNP.

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—Bill Gates (Alex Wong/Getty Images

This post has been updated.

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