With over $3.3 trillion in assets, JP Morgan Chase is the biggest bank in America. Coming up behind it are Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bank. Here are the stories of how they (and others) got started.

The story of the banking industry is, in many ways, the story of America. Immigrant successes, Westward expansion, rebuilding after massive losses, inventing new technology… American banks have been part of all these efforts and more.

This is especially true of the largest banks in America. With international presence and massive amounts of wealth, these banks play an important role in the history and future of world finance.

1. JP Morgan Chase

  • Assets: $3,380,824M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 4,828
  • HQ: Columbus, OH

JP Morgan Chase’s ancestor institution, The Bank of The Manhattan Company, began as a water supplier. In 1799, New York Assemblyman Aaron Burr led an initiative to bring Manhattan residents fresh water. The entrepreneurial Burr used his state charter to start both a waterworks and a bank, which would outlive the water company and merge with Chase Bank in 1955.

Two other large institutions gave the bank its name. Famous financier J. Pierpont Morgan joined an 1871 merchant banking partnership to support American industrial growth. Publisher John Thompson established Chase National Bank in 1877, naming it after friend and Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase. By 1930 Chase National Bank was the world’s largest.

Morgan spurred his firm’s growth by financing the railroad industry in the late 19th century. Struggling railroads like the Erie and the Northern Pacific got “Morganized” with cost-cutting measures and restructuring. Other companies that would later be a part of JP Morgan Chase founded American engineering projects standing today, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. In 1904 J.P. Morgan & Co. financed the Panama Canal with a record-breaking real estate transaction of $40 million.

Later, JP Morgan Chase-affiliated institutions spearheaded 20th-century banking technologies including cash dispensers — the ancestors of ATMs — and home banking services.

2. Bank of America

  • Assets: $2,440,022M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 3,895
  • HQ: Charlotte, NC

Bank of America began in San Francisco as Bank of Italy. It traces its roots to 1904, when founder Amadeo Giannini, an Italian-American, had a vision for a new type of bank.

At the time major banks only catered to the wealthy. The Bank of Italy provided loans to middle and working-class Americans, immigrants, and farmers. Giannini convinced his neighbors, many of whom were fellow immigrants, to keep their money safely in a vault and earn interest. He began operations in a former saloon.

Giannini’s bank grew quickly and changed its name in 1930 to a name he felt better described his mission: Bank of America.

Bank of America continued to make inroads beyond its West Coast headquarters. By Giannini’s death in 1949 the bank was the world’s largest with $6 billion in assets.

In 1958, Bank of America issued the first bank credit card. By 1991, Bank of America had purchased a major California competitor and become the first bank to operate from coast to coast in the United States.

The 2009 acquisition of Merrill Lynch helped turn Bank of America into the largest wealth-management corporation in the world.

3. Citigroup

  • Assets: $1,720,308M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 666
  • HQ: Sioux Falls, SD

When the First Bank of the United States lost its charter in 1811, several of its investors decided to charter their own banks. One of these new banks was the City Bank of New York, founded in June 1812.

It was led by Samuel Osgood, a former member of George Washington’s cabinet and a Revolutionary War veteran. The bank was one of the first institutions to set up an office on Wall Street before the street became a financial hub.

City Bank saw opportunities in the early transportation industry. In the 1850s, bank president Moses Taylor invested in railroads and steamships.

City Bank was also the first American bank to open a department abroad. By 1915 it was the nation’s primary international bank. Texas entrepreneur James Stillman became bank president in 1891 and started trading with countries like Spain, Japan, and Brazil.

After a series of mergers, the former City Bank branched out into a holding company (Citigroup) and a banking business (Citibank) in the 1970s, forming Citigroup Inc. in 1998.

4. Wells Fargo

  • Assets: $1,712,535M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 4,739
  • HQ: Sioux Falls, SD

The California gold rush inspired investing partners Henry Wells and William Fargo to open a new venture in San Francisco in 1852. Wells, Fargo & Co. operated a bank and express delivery service for gold. As gold miners spread to cities and camps throughout California, Wells Fargo & Co. followed.

The company made its name in transportation. Prospectors needed to get their gold from coast to coast. There was a huge market for other transit needs, too, like communicating messages.

Wells Fargo used steamships, ponies, railroads, telegraphs, and stagecoaches to make deliveries across the developing West. They operated the western leg of the Pony Express in 1861 and expanded with the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s.

By 1888, Wells Fargo, using the mottoes “Ocean-to-Ocean” and “Over the Seas,” ran the U.S.’s first national express company and looked towards global expansion. They also boasted the world’s largest collection of stagecoaches and served areas where railroads didn’t run.

5. U.S. Bank

  • Assets: $582,253M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 2,251
  • HQ: Cincinnati, OH

Like most banks on the list, U.S. Bank is the product of multiple mergers. The combined power of several original “legacy” banks across the country, from Oregon to Ohio to Colorado, helped make U.S. Bank the success it is today.

U.S. Bank’s oldest legacy bank, Firstar of Milwaukee, was founded in 1853 as Farmers and Millers Bank. And the administration of President Abraham Lincoln approved the charter for the First National Bank of Cincinnati (later Star Banc) in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.

San Miguel Valley Bank in Colorado, later part of U.S. Bank, earned its own claim to fame when it was robbed by Butch Cassidy in 1889 — the first bank the outlaw ever robbed.

As American prospectors and businesspeople went West to seek profits, U.S. Bank expanded westward as well. The United States National Bank of Portland opened in 1891 in Oregon. It later formed a holding company called U.S. Bancorp. U.S. Bank locked in its name before a 1913 law prohibited other banks from using “United States” in their names.

Over a century later, in the early 2000s, Firstar of Milwaukee — now much larger and wealthier than the Farmers and Millers Bank of 1853 — combined with U.S. Bancorp. More regional mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s and 2000s added Star Bank, along with regional banks in Missouri and Minnesota, to the U.S. Bank fleet.

6. PNC Bank

  • Assets: $534,347M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 2,639
  • HQ: Wilmington, DE

PNC stands for Pittsburgh National Corporation. In some ways, PNC hasn’t strayed far from its Pennsylvania roots. The company still does business in the same Pittsburgh location where the First National Bank of Pittsburgh opened in the mid-19th century Civil War era.

The bank continued to serve the community during the Great Depression in the 1930s, partnering with Peoples-Pittsburgh Trust Company to finance local improvement projects. They established a simple process for home and auto loan approvals and opened branches in small Pennsylvania manufacturing towns.

In 1983, PNC merged with the bank Provident National Corporation, taking advantage of new laws that permitted statewide banking. At the time, this was the largest merger in U.S. banking history. Conveniently, the two companies had the same initials.

As technology took on a larger role in banking, PNC established a common platform for each of its member banks in 1990. This way, customers had consistent access to the same services. A 1999 acquisition of an investor services group helped PNC branch into the worldwide investment industry.

7. Truist Bank

  • Assets: $532,080M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 2,117
  • HQ: Charlotte, NC

A company with proud Southern roots, Truist began in Atlanta, Georgia, as the Commercial Travelers’ Savings Bank in 1891, with a grocer as its first president. The bank moved into an eight-story building a few years later (the first “skyscraper” in the South) and became Trust Company of Georgia (TCG), focused on investment banking.

TCG also played a role in financing one of the country’s favorite drinks. In 1919, TCG purchased the Coca-Cola company and received $110,000 of shares in Coca-Cola stock.

After becoming a full-service commercial bank in 1933, TCG expanded through Georgia and the southeast. They merged with Florida-based Sun Banks, Inc., in 1985, the largest bank merger in the American southeast at the time. The new company, SunTrust, became one of the first banks to use electronic check transactions in 2004.

A much larger merger followed in 2019, as SunTrust combined with fellow Southern bank BB&T. To start fresh as a new institution, the now-larger bank hired a branding company to come up with an original name. As American Banker reports, many customers thought the name Truist was strange — but this doesn’t seem to have impacted the company’s profits.

8. Goldman Sachs

  • Assets: $501,906M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 3
  • HQ: New York, NY

Marcus Goldman, a German American shopkeeper living in New York City, found a niche in the banking market in 1869. His “commercial paper” trading business helped merchants and small businesses get short-term funds without paying for pricey bank credits. In 1882 his son-in-law Samuel Sachs joined the firm.

The newly named Goldman, Sachs & Co. was trading on the New York Stock Exchange by 1896. Business started booming. They scored big-name clients like Sears, Roebuck & Co., bought overseas banks, and started trading in international currency.

Goldman Sachs is known for pioneering the initial public offering or IPO, a process where a company offers shares of its stock for investors to buy. The IPO has since been essential to the growth of hundreds of companies and is one of the main ways companies raise capital.

9. TD Bank

  • Assets: $405,223M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 1,159
  • HQ: Wilmington, DE

TD Bank has Canadian roots. As the grain industry became more profitable in Canada, a group of merchants and grain millers founded the Bank of Toronto in 1855. A decade later in 1869, The Dominion Bank opened to serve Canadians, and both banks expanded across the country in the early 20th century.

After World War II, the two banks decided to merge in response to the challenges of the postwar economy. Their new combined name, Toronto Dominion (TD), has lasted since 1954.

Post-merger, TD Bank added substantially to its products and services, branching into mutual funds, discount and full-service brokerage, and commercial real estate. In 1987, the bank opened Toronto Dominion Securities Inc. for corporate investors.

Their expansion into the United States began in 2007-8 when TD Bank acquired the U.S.-based Commerce Bancorp. Commerce was known for its convenient hours, open seven days a week and almost 365 days a year. In its new incarnation, TD Bank adopted the tagline “America’s most convenient bank” throughout the U.S. and Canada.

10. Capital One

  • Assets: $388,440M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 296
  • HQ: McLean, VA

Compared to the other big banks in the United States, Capital One hasn’t been around for long at all. It wasn’t founded until 1988.

How did Capital One experience such rapid growth in only a few decades? Part of the answer is its niche expertise as a credit card company. Though Capital One has offered loans and consumer banking since 2005, its greatest profits in its early years came from customers’ desire for credit cards — which were more novel and exciting in the 1990s than they are today.

Capital One was pretty clever at growing its credit card business. The company used data to target customers with personalized offers, and grew its customer base by offering secured cards and joint accounts to customers with less-than-perfect credit. Additionally, Capital One offered the standout feature of letting cardholders design their own cards.

Catching up for its late start, Capital One acquired several other banks and increased its presence in the United States and Canada. By 2016, Capital One was the third-largest credit card issuer in the United States.

Nowadays, in addition to its booming credit card trade, Capital One has consumer banking and commercial banking divisions — including its Capital One 360 services that adapt checking, savings, and money market accounts for the digital age.

11. Bank of New York Mellon (BNY Mellon)

  • Assets: $365,102M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 29
  • HQ: New York, NY

The original Bank of New York (BNY) dates all the way back to 1784, when it was founded by Alexander Hamilton. BNY loans helped finance U.S. infrastructure projects like the Erie Canal and the subway in New York City.

Its future partner, Mellon Financial, got started in 1869 as a wealth management firm. Though the two companies are combined today, they still maintain a separate wealth management business.

In 2006-7, the Bank of New York acquired Mellon Financial and took on the new name BNY Mellon. The new company focuses primarily on corporate banking, including securities and asset management.

This focus is one reason for its huge profits; many of America’s large foundations, pension funds, and other Fortune 500 power players do business with BNY Mellon. By the end of 2020, the bank was servicing more money in assets than any other company in the world.

12. State Street Bank & Trust Co.

  • Assets: $296,434M
  • Number of U.S. branches: 2
  • HQ: Boston, MA

State Street’s predecessor banks date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1792, Union Bank (later National Union Bank) was approved by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock and started business in Boston. They opened a headquarters on Boston’s State Street.

A century later in 1891, their competitor, the State Street Deposit & Trust Co., opened nearby. The two Boston banks merged in 1925 and kept the name of the street they had in common.

One major factor in State Street’s expansion was its embrace of technology and software. In 1973, when computers were still being developed, State Street acquired part of Boston Financial Data Services and began using data processing to improve their accounting and customer service.

When a 1974 law increased companies’ responsibilities to report pension plans to the government, State Street worked on software that helped companies maintain these records. That same year, the bank opened its own data processing headquarters in a Boston suburb.

Summary

The 12 biggest banks in America all have different stories, but also many things in common: savvy entrepreneurs behind them, massive growth fuelled by mergers and banking innovations, and a whole lot of assets in their vaults.

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About the author

Amy Bergen Writer
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Amy Bergen is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. She's interested in technology, literature, and how the world will change in the future. You can reach Amy on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.