Retired Geologist tracks down earliest references to petroleum and first sightings.


A petroleum geologist and historian has spent much of his professional career researching and writing about the oil and natural gas industry.  An ongoing project documents the earliest signs of oil worldwide — including references to hydrocarbons long before the first U.S. oil well drilled by along a Pennsylvania creek in August 1859.

For example, a 1543 Spanish expedition led by Don Luis de Moscoso in the Gulf of Mexico landed at the mouth of the Sabine River (Texas), where Indians had long utilized natural seeps.

Sailing vessel known as a brig, circa mid-1500s.

Spanish explorer used brigantines to explore the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Retired and living in Tulsa, Raymond P. Sorenson initially focused his research on geological surveys, reports from exploring expeditions, and scientific journals before progressing to references cited by others, Sorenson concentrated on North America and English language sources – the most readily available – but discovered other rare sources as well.

Antiquity to Today

In 2020, Sorenson contacted the American Oil & Gas Historical Society to  share his bibliography of “Pre-Drake” publications. His work now includes more than 740 reference pages (with captured images) of his sources for the earliest signs of hydrocarbons in North America and other parts of the world.

“For the past few years I have been engaged in a systematic study to document what was known about oil and natural gas prior to the Drake well,” Sorenson noted.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

“I have an additional list of cited references that I have not yet examined of comparable size,” Sorenson added in a follow-up email to AOGHS. “The majority are in languages other than English, and I suspect that many of them will not be accessible through my library resources (or my linguistic skill set).”

A petroleum historian and consulting geologist based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sorenson explained in his email to AOGHS that to aid researchers, he has been using images of every page that contains relevant material, posting the full reference information at the top, and outlining the relevant portion of the text.

An 1835 oil history research page on geology.

An 1835 reference to signs of oil and natural gas in Massachusetts prior to the first commercial U.S. oil well in Pennsylvania. Image courtesy Ray Sorenson.

“So far I have found relevant information in more than 550 publications with over 3,500 net pages, covering at last count 31 states, five Canadian provinces, and many foreign countries on other continents,” Sorenson noted in January. “For several topics, I have created subsets. I expect to continue to build the collection.”

Sorenson’s research for his “Pre-Drake Literature Collections by Subject” has so far included:

Antiquity, California, Canada, Central & South America, Early Geologists, Europe, Fiction, Humboldt, Industrial & Laboratory, Initial Reactions, Kentucky, Maps & Figures, Medicinal , Middle East Asia Africa, Midwest, New England, New York, Oil & Gas Wells Pre-Drake, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Religious, Scientific American, Shales that Burn, Southern U.S., Taylor R.C., Statistics of Coal, Textbooks, Volcanoes and Earthquakes, David Wells, Annual of Scientific Discovery, and Western U.S. (- California).

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

In addition to his research in obscure scholarly journals, Sorenson discovered petroleum references in popular 19th century publications. For example, the April 18, 1829, issue of “Niles’ Register” reported a Kentucky salt well driller finding oil.

“We have just conversed with a gentleman from Cumberland county, who informs us that in boring through rocks for salt water, a fountain of petroleum, or volatile oil, was struck, at the depth of 180 feet,” the Baltimore publication noted on page  117.

Sorenson’s Research Gigabytes

A long-time member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the Petroleum History Institute (PHI), Sorenson has made many presentations and published academic papers with both. He submitted to PHI a paper on his history of oil and natural gas production from wells prior to 1859 for the journal Oil-Industry History.

The wells were drilled seeking water or brine, but Sorenson found one that flowed an estimated 2,500 barrel of oil per day in the 1820s.

In 2007, Sorenson adapted many of his contributions to AAPG for its extensive Discovery Series with “First Impressions: Petroleum Geology at the Dawn of the North American Oil Industry.”  In January 2013, his “Historic New York Survey Set High Geologic Standards” was published in AAPG Explorer magazine, one of his many contributions to that publication.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Sorenson, who also has assisted with AOGHS articles (see Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology), noted in his email he does not yet plan to provide this collection in searchable form on a website, but will work with anyone who is conducting similar historical research.

Everything in the collection is preserved in both hard copy and digital (PDF) form, adding up to 11 feet of shelf space — about 27 gigabytes of computer memory! 

Eventually, Sorenson intends to give his full collection of research to the Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville, at the site where Edwin L. Drake first found oil in the upper Venango sands.

Today, the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry and Tourism proclaims that historic part of northwestern Pennsylvania, “The Valley that Changed the World.”

For more information about Ray Sorenson’s on-going oil history projects and resources, post a comment below. 


Edwin Drake’s 1859 Pennsylvania Well

The beginning of the science of petroleum geology might be traced to 1859 when a new industry began in western Pennsylvania. An oil well drilled in 1859 by former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake along Oil Creek at Titusville sought oil for making kerosene, a new lamp fuel at the time made from coal.

Slowed by delays in receiving funds for what locals called “Drake’s Folly” and drilling with a steam-powered cable-tool rig, it took Drake more than a year to find oil at a depth of 69.5 feet. He also made his own innovations along the way, including adding a 10-foot cast iron pipe to the bore hole — a first.

To the relief of his investors at the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven Connecticut, Drake completed the first U.S. oil well drilled specifically for oil. The August 27, 1859, discovery came in a geologic formation that would be called the Venango sands.


Recommended Reading: Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975); The Birth of the Oil Industry (1936);  The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (2008); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009)Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2023 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Sorenson Oil History Project.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: July 20, 2023. Original Published Date: August 5, 2020.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This