History of oil in America
Despite their contentious political status and unpopularity with environmentalists, oil and gas are still used for myriad purposes in American life. From fueling cars and commercial vehicles to powering planes to facilitating the creation of plastics, waxes, and latex, oil and gas remain an inescapable facet of daily life and business in the United States.
Many think of the history of oil in America as relatively recent and not all that widespread—limited particularly to the famous oil-rich state of Texas. And indeed, the abundance of oil and resultant business in the state looms large in the popular imagination, from television shows like Dynasty, which follows the family of a wealthy oil tycoon, to the Texas-born-and-bred political family of two United States presidents—George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush—who owned an oil and gas exploration business.
But oil in America has a much longer, richer, and more complicated history than what most of us know of it from popular culture and surface-level political familiarity. It was actually discovered by Native Americans long before settlers ever set foot in America, and was used for some incredible purposes before its contemporary applications. One such use is medicine, which has utilized for oil across cultures for centuries.
Stacker looked at 30 of the most important milestones in the development of the oil and gas industry in America, since the earliest recorded uses of it more than 600 years ago. Click through for a look at America’s fascinating, rich, and occasionally global entanglement with oil and gas. It illuminates as much about the intrepid, entrepreneurial, and all-out capitalistic spirit of the United States as it does about oil and gas themselves, and also shows just how much a natural resource can respond and react to world events.
From the Civil War to American foreign policy, to cloak-and-dagger coups in the Middle East, oil has been involved in many of America’s defining moments. And with the nation today ranking as the #1 producer of oil in the world, that doesn’t show any signs of changing.
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1410: The Iroquois harvest oil
Native Americans were the first to discover oil in America, when the Seneca tribe, a member of the Iroquois nation, began harvesting seep oil as early as 1410. The tribe claimed the land in what is now Pennsylvania, where they used a skimming process to extract seep oil, which they then collected and used as a mosquito repellant, a body salve, and more.
1657: The Jesuits find petroleum
In 1657, the Jesuit Recorder—an account kept by Jesuit missionaries during their time in New France—noted, upon coming across oil, that they’d discovered a “heavy and thick water, which ignites like brandy, and boils up in bubbles of flame when fire is applied to it.” The register further noted that the substance was so oily that Native American tribes used it to “anoint and grease their heads and bodies.”
1814: Crude oil bottled in Ohio
Crude oil was bottled in Ohio as early as 1814, after a couple of saltwater well drillers accidentally discovered the oil while drilling. The oil was then bottled up with one main purpose: to be used for medicine, which cultures around the world—including in some regions of Nigeria, for example—have also used crude oil for.
1818: Crude oil bottled in Kentucky
Four years after Ohio bottled up crude oil, Kentucky followed suit. This time, the oil was discovered by salt-makers on the hunt for brine who instead found themselves drilling into an oil well that became the first commercial oil well in the state.
1825: The first natural gas well
The first American natural gas well was dug in 1825 in Fredonia, a town in western New York. The well made New York the first state to produce natural gas commercially. The gas was not only supplied to businesses in the area, but also used to power the first gas streetlights.
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1846: The kerosene lamp is Invented
In 1846, the geologist Abraham Gesner invented the first kerosene lamp, though the lamp wasn’t widely used at first due to the high price of kerosene. However, the lamp would prove critical in the boom of the oil business over the next decade, as it was discovered that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum, making the cost of powering a kerosene lamp substantially lower than it had been initially.
1850s: Samuel Kier tests oil lamps
By the 1850s, the businessman Samuel Kier already owned oil wells he had been using for medicinal purposes, and was looking for new avenues to market his resources. He began testing different ways to burn oil in lamps for illumination.
1859: The first oil rig
The first oil rig was established in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The rig tragically caught fire a few short months later, which would serve as a warning sign to would-be drillers everywhere of the dangers of oil drilling.
1860s: Oil in the Appalachian Basin
Despite the disaster at the Titusville rig, the promise of oil remained stronger than the fear of its hazards, and a number of other rigs quickly sprung up in the Titusville rig’s wake. Many of those rigs that mushroomed in the 1860s were clustered in the Appalachian Basin, even as the Civil War raged on.
1867: A precursor to Standard Oil
The foundation for one of the biggest oil companies in the world technically begun in 1867, when Charles Pratt, one of the earliest players in the petroleum industry, started Charles Pratt and Company with his partner, Henry Rogers. The company would later join forces with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1874, four years after the oil behemoth’s birth.
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