American oil history begins in a valley along a creek in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. Today’s U.S. petroleum exploration and production industry is born on August 27, 1859, near Titusville when a well specifically drilled for oil finds it.

American oil history

Considered America’s first petroleum exploration company – the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York – incorporated in 1854. It reorganized as Seneca Oil Company in 1858.

A scientist hired by a group of investors four years earlier, reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than the refined coal then in use. As America expanded westward, public demand for “rock oil” or “coal oil” skyrocketed.

Organized on March 23, 1858, the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut invested in this highly speculative pursuit of oil.

The New Haven company replaced one they had organized in New York in 1854, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, today considered America’s first oil company. Seneca Oil will drill the historic first commercial U.S. oil well.

first american well

Organized by former Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company investors from New Haven, Connecticut, the Seneca Oil Company will drill the first commercial U.S. oil well in 1859. Image courtesy William R. Brice/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Collection.

Although small amounts of oil had been found (and bottled for medicine) as early as 1814 in Ohio and in Kentucky in 1818, these had been drilled seeking brine water. Pioneers relied on salt to preserve meat. They often drilled using a “spring pole.” Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Seneca Oil’s investors were rewarded when former railroad man Edwin L. Drake brought in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. Read the rest of this entry »