An 1829 spring-pole well drilled seeking brine finds oil instead. Petroleum from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well is later bottled and sold for medicinal purposes. Also known as the Old American Well and the First Great American Gusher, the Kentucky discovery among the earliest commercial U.S. oil wells.

Great American Well

Preceding oil wildcatters, settlers seeking brine drilled with the “spring-pole,” a technology used by the Chinese as early as 450 A.D. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the Department of the Interior.

Although oil would not be drilled for – and found – in Pennsylvania until three decades later, launching America’s petroleum industry, Kentucky claims the first oil gusher.

Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device (used in ancient China) on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty found an oilfield.

Drilled for a local doctor, the March 11, 1829, gusher shot “to the top of the surrounding trees.”

According to historian Sheldon Baugh, prior to his Cumberland County oilfield discovery, Beatty first found oil in a McCreary County brine well in 1819. “The hole provided very little of the useless stuff, however, and was soon forgotten.”

Baugh describes the scene of Beatty’s more historic oil well of March 11, 1829:

On that day, well-driller Beatty bragged to bystanders “Today I’ll drill her into salt or else to Hell.” When the gusher erupted he apparently thought he’d succeeded in hitting “hell”! As the story goes “he ran off into the hills and didn’t come back,” quite terrorized by the situation. 

Another Kentucky historian will proclaim the 1829 well “was the first commercially operated oil well in the United States, predating the establishment of the oil industry by some thirty years.”

Kentucky's Great American Well

The Kentucky State Geology Survey preserves an 1865 map “embracing about 16 miles square of Cumberland County.” The 1829 well drilled seeking salt water results in the Great American Oil Well, which produces oil that is bottled and sold for “medicinal” purposes.

Beatty drilled his Cumberland County well with “an apparatus consisting of a spring pole made from a strong sapling, set in the crotch of a tree, with a short ‘bit’ fastened to the free end of the pole.”

The driller manipulated this bit by his own foot power – and what a slow task this must have been, according to the Burkesville Riverfront Lodge Motel today located nearby. Its promotional article adds:

“The Old Oil Well led the parade in 1829, and so it will continue to mark the spot where the world’s greatest industry was born.”

Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Pride of Burkesville

The Great American Oil Well’s historic marker – a large mill stone topped by a bronze tablet – was erected in 1934 by the Kentucky Legislature:

The history and subsequent events of the First Great American Gusher have been kept alive through a few interested citizens who have never, for any length of time, let go this birth of what has come to be a necessary part of the world today.

The 50,000 barrel, Old Oil Well, led the parade in 1829 and so it will continue to mark the spot where the world’s greatest industry was born.

Unfortunately, soon after its discovery, oil from the 171-foot-deep well reached the Cumberland River – where it ignited and burned for three weeks, halting riverboat traffic 50 miles downstream, according to the Kentucky Geological Survey (KGS).

Petroleum drilling, production and control technologies had not been invented.

“The salt borers were greatly disappointed,” reported an 1847 account of the discovery. “The well was neglected for several years, until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities.”

Oil for Medicinal Purposes

Petroleum’s uses in medicine, which continues today, began as a cure-all bottled in large quantities and “extensively sold in nearly all the states in the Union.”

The 1810-1960 Burkesville Sesquicentennial booklet cites an August 22, 1919, article from the Burkesville Leader:

The well was a continuing puzzle to the curious travelers who succeeded in winding tortuous journey over bed of the creek…There was a reputation as a cure all which spread around among the various adventurers through the years. The fluid was bottled and sold under the caption of “American Rock Oil.”

The writer knew personally, in later years, one man who vouched for its curative powers for baldness. He stated that when he left the oil field on Saturday night he always took his double handful of crude oil and thoroughly douzed his head in it massaging it into his scalp. When he died at the age of 91 he had a beautiful shock of white hair!

Kentucky's Great American Well

Kentucky today produces oil and natural gas in 52 counties. Oil production (green) is in the western and south-central areas. Most natural gas (red) is produced in eastern counties. Cumberland County is on the Tennessee border in the middle of the state.

Some claim Kentucky oil ended up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1840s, where Samuel Kier sold it as medicine. In the mid-1850s Kier refined Pennsylvania oil into a his newly invented lamp fuel, which many called “coal oil.”

The historic Kentucky well produced oil until about the Civil War. Salt makers eventually took over the operation of the well, as salt water replaced oil as the well’s primary output.

Ohio Well strikes Oil in 1814

Records gathered as part of a centennial celebration in 1929 “documenting the first commercially operated oil well in the United States” are preserved at the University of Kentucky Special Collections.

Kentucky's Great American Well

Rare Cumberland County medicine bottle embossed with American Oil and Kentucky.

However, another even earlier Kentucky well – reportedly drilled for brine in 1818 in what is now the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in McCreary County – also found oil that that was bottled and sold for medicinal purposes. As early as 1815 settlers in Wayne County had abandoned a brine well – because oil ruined it as a source of salt water.

Still earlier, in Noble County, Ohio, drillers seeking brine near Caldwell in 1814 discovered oil – which they soaked up with rags, bottled and sold. The Caldwell chamber of commerce and the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP) proclaim:

“First U.S. discovery of crude oil from a drilled well was in 1814, Noble County, Ohio.”

OOGEEP adds that Ohio’s first commercial oil production began in 1860, followed by natural gas in 1884. More than 275,000 wells have been drilled in Ohio since 1860 – the fourth most of all producing states.

Today in Kentucky, petroleum is produced from 52 out of 102 counties – from rock formations dating from the Cambrian to Pennsylvanian ages. Oil production generally includes the state’s western and south-central region. Most natural gas is produced in eastern counties. Almost 1,000 wells were drilled in 2009 – including 304 “dry holes.”

Drilling for oil – not brine – near Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin L. Drake is credited with launching the American petroleum industry on August 27, 1859. Learn more in First American Oil Well.

___________________________________________________________________________________

AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.