Individuals who Moved from Rags to Riches


In this life, one has to make his own world, his or her own oyster. It doesn’t matter where you are. You can be and do anything. You can move from poverty to riches if you want. Here are the stories of some people who moved from rags to riches.

Catherine 1

People may easily mistake Empress Catherine I of Russia’s life for something out of a fairy tale. The future queen was born in 1684 to a family of Lithuanian peasants and was orphaned at the age of 3 when both her parents died of the plague. A pastor raised her and she spent her adolescence as a housemaid in Marienburg, Latvia. After Russia took over the city in 1702, authorities arrested Catherine at the age of 18 and deported her to Moscow.

She worked as a servant in the home of a high-ranking government official when she met the Russian Emperor, Peter the Great. Catherine, although being uneducated and illiterate, attracted the emperor with her beauty and wit, and the two quickly started a passionate romance.

Catherine 1 became Peter’s closest confidante during an era of significant political and social reforms after the pair married in the early 18th century (1712). Upon his death in 1725, she became Russia’s first female empress, crowning her remarkable rise from an orphaned peasant to a monarch.

Catherine died after only 16 months on the throne, but in that time, she consolidated authority and decreased the empire’s bloated military. Not forgetting her lowly beginnings, she won the people’s love by delivering generous presents to the underprivileged.

Andrew Carnegie

The story of steel mogul Andrew Carnegie’s rise started in 1835 in a modest one-room cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, and people often describe his story as the ultimate rags to riches story. Carnegie was born into a poor family of laborers and received little education before his family immigrated to America in 1848. When the 13-year-old arrived in Pennsylvania, he quickly found work in a textile mill, earning less than $2 per week.

Carnegie worked as a messenger boy and a factory worker before landing a job as a secretary and telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad. By 1859, the enterprising young worker had advanced to the position of superintendent of the railroad’s western section.

Carnegie put his newfound fortune into several ventures, including a bridge company, a telegraph operation, and a steel factory. His Carnegie Steel Company had grown into an industrial empire by the turn of the century, and Andrew Carnegie became the world’s richest man after selling out to J.P. Morgan for more than $400 million.

Carnegie spent his later years devoting his riches to charitable causes, eventually giving away over $300 million, believing that the man who dies rich dies disgraced.


The Hongwu Emperor

A Chinese farmer brought down the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty in one of history’s most unexpected leaps to power. In the 14th century, a young orphan called Zhu Yuangzhang joined a monastery in a desperate attempt to avoid famine. After a time as a mendicant beggar, the young traveler joined a band of marauders who had revolted against the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty.

Zhu Yuangzhang, a natural military leader, ascended quickly through the ranks of the bandits, and by 1355, he had seized command of the whole rebel army. The orphan general, ruthless and resolute, went on to conduct a terrible struggle against both the Mongols and his Chinese competitors for supremacy.

In 1368, Zhu declared himself the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty and assumed the name of Hongwu. While the Hongwu emperor famously returned China to local sovereignty, his 30-year reign was full of paranoia and severe brutality. In 1380, for example, he ordered the murder of more than 25,000 individuals after learning of a possible plot to destabilize his rule.

Justin 1

Most Byzantine emperors ascended to the throne through a rigorous line of succession, but Justin I overcame this by sheer force of will. This self-made prince was born a peasant and spent his youth as a sheepherder in the Balkans. In the late 4th century, he set out for Constantinople in search of adventure and money. Justin stumbled and got a job as a guard for the Byzantine Emperor, Leo, after arriving in the capital city with nothing but the clothing on his back.

People admired Justin for his bravery and prowess as a fighter, despite his inability to read or write, and he finally rose to command the royal guard. When Anastasius I, the childless emperor, died in 518, Justin used his power to persuade his fellow soldiers to give him the crown.

The 68-year-extraordinary old’s journey from a humble shepherd to the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end with this coup. The peasant emperor’s nine-year rule paved the way for his far more powerful successor, Justinian I, who attempted to resurrect the old Roman empire by retaking most of Western Europe.

Biddy Mason

Despite being born a slave, Bridget Biddy Mason rose to become one of America’s first female real estate tycoons. Mason moved to Utah in 1847 after her owner converted to Mormonism, following a childhood spent in bondage in Mississippi. Mason petitioned for and got her freedom in 1856 when the family relocated to California.

Mason worked as a midwife in LA for the next decade, and after purchasing a tiny plot of land for $250, she became one of the city’s first black proprietors. Mason later profitably sold some of the lands and went on to develop commercial properties in some of L.A.’s hottest business districts. Her savvy land dealings let her accumulate a fortune worth more than $250,000 over time. Along the way, Grandma Mason gave liberally to charity and disaster relief, assisted with the feeding of the destitute, and helped fund the establishment of the city’s first black church.

Henry Miller

Despite arriving in America as a destitute immigrant, Henry Miller became one of the state’s largest landowners and helped mold the western frontier’s history. Heinrich Alfred, the future cattle magnate, left Germany at the age of 14 and came to the US in 1846. After purchasing a non-transferrable steamer ticket from a traveling salesperson with the same name, he traveled to California and adopted the pseudonym “Henry Miller.”

Miller arrived in San Francisco with only $6 in his pocket and worked as a butcher’s helper for a week until he saved enough money to build his own store. The industrious German expanded his company by purchasing a herd of cattle and several thousand acres of grazing land as people flocked to California.

Miller developed a cattle empire during the next 50 years (5 decades), amassing over 1 million acres of land in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho. He also put a lot of money into irrigation systems, which helped turn thousands of acres of desert into grazing areas. According to estimates, H. Miller’s net worth was approximately $40 million at the time of his death in 1916.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, the famous novelist, frequently described individuals finding their way through difficult childhoods, and it turns out that these fictitious stories weren’t all that far from his own upbringing in 1820s England. While Dickens was able to attend school as a youngster, his father wasted the family’s funds and went to prison for failing to pay his obligations. Charles worked in the shoe polish business to help make money, while the rest of his family joined his father in prison. He was compelled to labor on an assembly line for hard 10-hour days in exchange for barely six shillings a week.

After his father paid off the family’s obligations, Charles Dickens was able to return to school, but he quit for a second time to work as an office clerk to support his family. He went on to work as a journalist and writer, and his first piece of success came in 1836 with “The Pickwick Papers.”

Dickens would go on to become one of the most famous, popular, and wealthy writers of the 19th century, but his experience of working in a rat-infested factory tormented him for the rest of his life.



Related Posts

Illuminating the Promise of Africa.

Receive captivating stories direct to your inbox that reveal the cultures, innovations, and changemakers shaping the continent.