Dakota Datebook

Levingston or Rockefeller

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

It was on this date in 1906 that William Levingston died at the age of 96. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Illinois, where he had lived out his life with Margaret, his wife of 50 years.

William, a descendent of German immigrants, grew up in New York State. At 24, he was tall, handsome and rugged, and he did whatever he pleased, no matter the consequence.

When he was 27, he met a deeply religious woman, 24 year-old Eliza Davison. It was a case of “opposites attract,” and over her father’s objections, Eliza married William soon after. A year later, they had a daughter, Lucy, and a year after that, they had a son, John, followed by four more children.

William was frequently out of town on mysterious business trips. He paid his bills and was present for the births of his children, but there was much speculation about how he made his money. His son John would later say, “He made a practice for many years of never carrying less than $1000, and he kept that in his pocket. He was able to take care of himself…”

William was indicted for an alleged rape of Eliza’s hired girl. He wasn’t arrested or tried, but he started moving his family around the country, finally settling in Ohio. It was now known how William made his money; he put out flyers claiming to be a “Celebrated Cancer Specialist, Here for One Day Only. All Cases of Cancer Cured Unless Too Far Gone…” He was also lending money to farmers who couldn’t afford his 12% interest rate, so he could foreclose on their land.

When he was 43, William met 19 year-old Margaret Allen. Three years later, they got married. They settled down in Illinois, but William was the same with his unlawful wife as he was with his real wife. He’d be gone for months, then suddenly show up with loads of cash.

From 1881 to 1889 William owned a farm near Park River, North Dakota. People there said that William’s ranch was really owned by John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company and was, in fact, nicknamed the Standard Oil Ranch. In many ways, it was true. In a complicated series of purchases and sales, a great deal of land ended up in the hands of William, who was in reality… not William Levingston, but William Avery Rockefeller – John D. Rockefeller’s father.

Much later, in 1937, one of William’s business partners, C.D. Johnston, said that John D. suggested North Dakota to his father in hopes of “weaning him away” from Margaret Allen. But every fall, William went back to Margaret. By spring, he was back in North Dakota.

Six months after his real wife died, 76 year-old William sold out and went back to Margaret for good. One of the nurses who attended him at his death 20 years later reported that he told Margaret, “You’re not my wife. Where’s Eliza?” Also, his burial record listed his birth date as November 13, 1810 – identical to Rockefeller’s.

When Margaret was presented with evidence that her husband was really William Rockefeller, she told reporters, “Go to the other side if you wish to learn the facts.” They asked what she meant, and she said, “John D. Rockefeller. Let him tell if he will. Go to him and leave me alone with my dead.”

Margaret died four years later and was buried beside her mysterious husband; it was at this point that his grave was finally marked – with the name of Levingston. But scholars agree that he was in fact the father of one of the richest men in American history.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

(For more information, go to: http://www.ndhumanities.org/html/rockefeller.html)

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

« Go Back


50 Years
A Million Thanks

Public NewsRoom

Log-on and dig deep into the news of the day. It’s all online in our Public NewsRoom.

» Visit the Public NewsRoom

Breaking News

Support Radio

Your contributions make quality radio programming possible.

» Pledge your support today.

Sign up for our Email Newsletter
For Email Marketing you can trust