First Oklahoma Oil Well
Prior to the Civil War, America’s search for oil prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and wildcatters to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.
This was land reserved for Native Americans by Congress and home to its indigenous people as well as the “Five Civilized Tribes” – Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw, which had been relocated from the Southeast.
Each of the Five Civilized Tribes established national territorial boundaries, constitutional governments, and advanced judicial and public school systems. The Indian Territory included present-day Oklahoma north and east of the Red River, as well as Kansas and Nebraska.
Discovering Indian Territory Oil
Fifty-one years before Oklahoma statehood, in 1856 the Indian Territory had become home to the Five Civilized Tribes – as well as the Osage, Pawnee, Seneca, Shawnee, Delaware, and others.
A non-tribal member coming into the Indian Territory to work was required to take out a license or permit; one who married into a tribe was adopted and able to share in tribal property.
In 1859, Lewis Ross, a brother of Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, found a pocket of oil that produced about ten barrels a day for nearly a year. He was drilling for saltwater – brine being much-desired for making salt, a food preservative.
Ross drilled his well on the Grand River near Salina in what is now Mayes County, Oklahoma. After deciding to sink a deeper well for greater production, he found oil instead. News spread of this potential source of tribal revenue.
According to the constitutions of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations at that time, the land was held in common by the Indian citizens of the nations – but the individual citizens could lease out a limited amount of land.
The Ross well was quickly depleted, but it proved that there was oil to be found in the Indian Territory.
By 1875, Jacob H. Bartles, another pioneer and adopted Delaware Indian, was operating a trading post on the Caney River in the Cherokee Nation.
Bartles employed two ambitious young men, George B. Keeler and William Johnstone. They too were adopted members of the Osage and Delaware tribes, respectively.
Within a few years, Keeler and Johnstone started their own competing general store on the other side of the Caney River, in what became Bartlesville. It was a successful enterprise and while the partners knew of oil seeps in the area at this time, they lacked the financial support and tribal permissions necessary to pursue the opportunity.
More than 20 years later, Keeler and Johnstone would make oil history just around the river bend from their general store.
The Search for Rock Oil like Pennsylvania’s oilfields
In 1884, the Cherokee Nation passed a law authorizing the “Organization of a company for the purpose of finding petroleum, or rock oil, and thus increasing the revenue of the Cherokee Nation.”
Five years later, a wildcatter named Edward Byrd secured mineral leases from the Cherokee Nation. He drilled his first well near present-day Chelsea (Rogers County) in 1890, and found oil at a depth of only 36 feet. His well produced about a half a barrel a day but lacked of a readily accessible market.
Edward Byrd organized the U.S. Oil and Gas Company, and sold one half of his acreage to the Cherokee Oil and Gas Company. His Chelsea well is still celebrated as Oklahoma’s first.
Following Edward Byrd’s success, Pennsylvania oilmen James Guffey and John H. Galey approached several prominent Indian citizens, including general store partners Keeler and Johnstone, and offered to purchase mineral sub-leases and pay a royalty of three and one-half percent to the Cherokee Nation on any petroleum production.
Years later George B. Keeler recalled:
Guffey and Galey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were drilling at Neodesha, Kansas, in 1893. Mr. Galey got in his buggy and followed the mounds from Kansas to the mound at Bartlesville.
He came to my store on the present site of Bartlesville and told me that there was oil here and that if I would get a lease from the Cherokees, he would drill a well.
Mr. Galey said that he knew there was oil here because of the mounds which, in his opinion, had been thrown up by gas pressure; and he called attention to the broken edges of all the rocks which, he said, would be round if caused by water and erosion.
However, before the deal could be completed, Guffey and Galey withdrew their backing and moved on to a new project near Beaumont, Texas. There, on January 10, 1901, the two men helped bring in the first well on Spindletop Hill.
Nellie Johnstone No.1 gushes
Meanwhile, George Keeler, William Johnstone, Frank Overlees, their Indian wives, and other locals had acquired mineral leases on over 200,000 acres of Cherokee land. They ultimately secured new financial backing from the millionaire Chicago meat-packer Michael Cudahy’s “Cudahy Oil Company.”
The new venture’s search for oil began in earnest when they hired the well-known firm of “McBride and Bloom” from Independence, Kansas. Albert P. McBride and Camden Bloom had drilled the state’s first successful well, Norman No.1, in what would come to be known as the Mid-Continent Field.
In December 1896, McBride and Bloom abandoned a 1,750 foot dry hole near Red Fork (today part of Tulsa) to drill a new well for Cudahy Oil Co. It took three-weeks of hauling equipment, tools, pipe and other materials 70-miles northward across the freezing Arkansas River to the new Keeler and Johnstone site on Spencer Creek of the Caney River.
Drilling began in January 1897, the same month that Bartlesville was incorporated with a population of about 200 people. Four months later, at 1,320 feet, the Nellie Johnstone No.1 well (named for partner William Johnstone’s six year-old daughter), showed for oil.
“Shooting” had been used since the 1859 Drake well in Pennsylvania to stimulate production. See Shooters - A “Fracking” History.
G. M. Perry, an expert shooter, was brought to the Indian Territory well from Kansas. Perry had been McBride and Bloom’s shooter for the successful Norman No.1 well there – completed in 1892 and claimed to be the first oil well west of the Mississippi river.
Liquid nitroglycerin was poured into a metal canister – or “torpedo” – and lowered into the well on April 15, 1897, as a crowd of about 50 curious onlookers gathered.
At 3 p.m., George Keeler’s stepdaughter, Miss Jenni Cass, dropped the “go devil” detonating device down the well bore to set off the waiting nitroglycerin.
The explosion caused Nellie Johnstone No.1 to blow in as a gusher, producing from 50 to 75 barrels of oil a day. Despite the production, the Cudahy Oil Co. was confronted with the same problem Edward Byrd had faced seven years earlier: more crude oil than the local market could consume.
With no storage tanks, pipelines, or railroads available, the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 was capped for two years.
The railroad finally came to Bartlesville with the opening of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1899. Oil could then be shipped from Bartlesville to Caney, Kansas, and from there by pipeline to a small Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha for processing into kerosene and other products.
With the railroad and pipeline, the Nellie Johnstone No.1, became commercially profitable in May 1900 with the initial shipment of oil at a price of $1.25 per barrel, less 25 cents for handling.
As the discovery well for the giant Bartlesville-Dewey Field, the Nellie Johnstone No.1 ushered in the oil era for Oklahoma Territory. It produced more than 100,000 barrels of oil in its lifetime. In the ten years following the Nellie Johnstone discovery, Bartlesville’s population grew from 200 to over 4,000 while Oklahoma’s oil production grew from 1,000 barrels to over 43 million barrels annually.
At the age of 12, future oil giant J. Paul Getty started selling the “Saturday Evening Post” in Bartlesville. By the age of 23, he had earned his first million in oil.
Frank Phillips, perhaps most beloved of all the Bartlesville oil legends, established the international Phillips Petroleum Company, which remained in Bartlesville until merging with Conoco in 2003.
After the Nellie Johnstone success, production in the Indian Territory rose rapidly, adding much impetus towards the granting of Statehood in 1907. In the 10 years between the Nellie Johnstone and statehood, Oklahoma became the largest oil-producing entity in the world.
Today, Oklahoma still ranks 7th in United States’ oil production and 4th in natural gas. George B. Keeler and William Johnstone are remembered as the Indian Territory entrepreneurs who opened an Oklahoma oil boom that continues to this day. Oklahoma’s first commercial oil well is commemorated north of downtown Bartlesville on Cherokee Avenue, where a rebuilt replica of the Nellie Johnstone No.1, stands at the original site.
The 1948 presentation of the well to the city of Bartlesville appropriately noted:
Like the rush for Oklahoma land, the discovery of oil attracted both men and capital from far and near, these pioneers in petroleum development were as rugged and self-sufficient as those who settled the land …
Oklahoma’s two greatest industries, agriculture and petroleum, have developed largely hand in hand, and back of both developments are the pioneers, men of restless energy and unbounded faith.
Editor’s Note – According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Oklahoma continues to be a leading natural gas producing state with more than a dozen of the 100 largest natural gas fields in the country; Oklahoma has five petroleum refineries with a combined capacity of roughly three percent of the total U.S. distillation capacity.
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