Teaching Students About Robber Barons


The term “Robber Baron” was coined in the late 19th century to describe a group of wealthy industrialists who amassed extraordinary fortunes through questionable business tactics. These individuals played a significant role in shaping the American landscape during the Gilded Age, as they built empires in industries such as railroads, oil, steel, and banking. Educating students about robber barons offers valuable insight into the historical context and complexities surrounding these influential figures.

Identifying Robber Barons:

Some notable robber barons include Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), and J.P. Morgan (banking). While their contributions to the development of the United States cannot be ignored, it is essential to delve deeper into their methods of amassing wealth and how they impacted society. This will provide students with a comprehensive understanding of both their achievements and controversies.

Teaching Methods:

1. Biographical Analysis: Encourage students to research the key players in different industries, focusing on their life stories, business tactics, and philanthropic efforts. Ask students to present their findings in class to spark discussion and debate.

2. Documentaries and Films: Introduce students to documentaries and films that showcase both the positive and negative aspects of these industrialists’ lives, such as “The Men Who Built America” or “There Will Be Blood.” Host discussions or assignments related to these materials.

3. Role-Playing Activities: Develop role-play activities where students take on personas of robber barons or their counterparts to engage in negotiations or crucial decision-making moments that shaped American history.

4. Resource Analysis: Have students study primary sources such as newspaper articles, journal entries, letters, and speeches from the Gilded Age to paint a vivid picture of public opinion concerning robber barons at that time.

5. Debates: Organize debates for or against the actions of these industrialists, encouraging students to take a stand based on their research and personal values.

6. Ethical Discussions: Facilitate discussions about business ethics and social responsibility, allowing students to reflect on the impact these tycoons had on society and how contemporary business leaders can learn from their experiences.


Teaching students about robber barons provides a unique opportunity to explore the paradoxical nature of these influential figures. It is important to emphasize both the positive and negative aspects of their actions by showcasing their contributions alongside the consequences of their methods. Engaging in various teaching activities will enable students to develop a comprehensive understanding of the Gilded Age and the central role that robber barons played in shaping American history. This will ultimately foster critical thinking skills and enhance a greater appreciation for historical context and complexities.

Choose your Reaction!