Stillman, James (1850–1918)

By: John Mason Hart

Type: Biography

Published: July 1, 1995

James Stillman, son of Elizabeth Pamela (Goodrich) and Charles Stillman, was born on June 9, 1850, at Brownsville, Texas. He took over his father's financial and mercantile empire in New York, Texas, and Mexico in 1872 and turned it into the controlling interest in the National City Bank in New York and the most powerful force in the development of the Rio Grande valley. He greatly expanded the interests in Texas that he inherited from his father. His Texas holdings included the bonds of sixteen banks; control of land-development companies in the lower Rio Grande valley, Corpus Christi, and Kerrville; an interest in the Swenson Ranch; and, with the other three members of the "Big Four"- W. H. Harriman, Jacob Henry Schiff, and William Rockefeller-control of most Texas railroads. The Big Four served as directors under his chairmanship on the board, put together by Stillman, of the National City Bank. They controlled the Texas and Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the International-Great Northern, the Union Pacific Southern, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico, and the Mexican National, which ran from Corpus Christi to Mexico City and from the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico terminus on the border at Brownsville to the Mexican capital.

In 1876 Stillman supported the successful Revolution of Tuxtepec, conducted by Mexican general Porfirio Díaz from Brownsville, which resulted in the overthrow of the Mexican government. Díaz's partisans called themselves the "railroaders." During the fighting Stillman purchased 100 percent of the riparian rights to the Rio Grande at Brownsville and up the river for an indeterminate distance. He sold two-thirds interest in those rights to the Mexican National Railroad in the 1890s. In 1880 Stillman, his employee Thomas Carson, who was the mayor of Brownsville, James Belden, and other Brownsville men received the concession from the Mexican president for the railroad to be built from Matamoros to Monterrey, where Stillman and Belden had large investments. During the twentieth century Stillman's enormous properties along the border were developed and sold by the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company of Mercedes, a confidential subsidiary of the National City Bank. Although Stillman's interests became global and he held more than 20 percent of the stock in the world's largest bank, he retained his father's $200,000 share in George W. Brackenridge's San Antonio National Bank throughout his life. He used that and his father's long ties with Brackenridge to develop property in West Texas and Mexico. His heirs expressed surprise when Brackenridge's will returned the $200,000 to them; they had apparently lost track of it. Stillman's two daughters married sons of his lifelong close friend William Rockefeller, the chairman of the board of the Standard Oil Company. Stillman died on March 15, 1918, in New York City.

John K. Winkler, The First Billion: The Stillmans and the National City Bank (New York: Vanguard, 1934).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John Mason Hart, “Stillman, James,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 21, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995