Famous lawman and wife gambled on Kern County oil leases.

 

Old West lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp in 1920 bet oil could be found on a barren piece of California scrub land. A century later, his Kern County lease is still paying royalties.

Ushered into modest retirement by notoriety, Mr. and Mrs. Wyatt Earp had alternately lived in suburban Los Angeles or tended to gold and copper mining ventures at their “Happy Days” camp in the Whipple Mountains near Vidal, California. 

The quietly retired Earps were known, if not successful, entrepreneurs with abundant experience running saloons, gambling houses, bordellos (Wichita, Kansas, 1874), real estate, and finally western mining ventures. Josephine “Josie” Marcus Earp had been by Wyatt’s side since his famed 1881 O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona.

Wyatt Earp and wife Josie at mining camp.

Circa 1906 photo of Wyatt Earp and wife Josie at their mining camp with dog “Earpie.”

In California, Josie’s younger sister, Henrietta Marcus, had married into wealth and thrived in Oakland society while Josie and Wyatt roamed the west. “Hattie” Lehnhardt had the genteel life sister Josie always wanted but never had. When Hattie’s husband Emil died by suicide in 1912, the widow Lehnhardt inherited a $225,000 estate.

Money had always been an issue between the Earps, according to historian John Gilchriese. Josie frequently reminded Wyatt that he had once employed a hard-up gold miner named Edward Doheny as an faro lookout (an armed bouncer) back in a Tombstone saloon. Doheny went on to discover the Los Angeles oilfield in the early 1880s.

The giant Los Angeles oilfield made Doheny millions of dollars — as it did with local piano teacher Emma Summers, who would become known as “Oil Queen of California.”

Earp’s venture into the oil patch began in 1920, when he gambled on an abandoned placer claim in southern California.

Kern County Gamble

In 1901, an oil exploration venture had drilled a wildcat well about five miles north of Bakersfield in Kern County. The attempt generated brief excitement, but nothing ultimately came of it. When Shasta Oil Company drilled into bankruptcy after three dry holes, the land returned to its former reputation — worthless except for sheep grazing.

Earp decided to bet on black gold where Shasta Oil had failed. But first, California required that he post a “Notice of Intent to File Prospectors Permit.” He sent his wife to make the application. But on her way to pay the fees with paperwork in hand, Josie was diverted by gaming tables. She lost all the money, infuriating Wyatt and delaying his oil exploration venture.

Later and largely with sister-in-law Hattie Lehnhardt’s money, Earp finally secured the Kern County lease claim he sought.

Wyatt Earp CA oil Lease map.

Wyatt Earp purchased a mineral lease in Kern County, PLSS (Public Land Survey System) Section 14, Township 28 South, Range 27 East, where oil wells would be drilled in the 1920s.

The San Francisco Examiner declared, “Old Property Believed Worthless for Years West of Kern Field Relocated by Old-Timers.” The newspaper — describing Earp as the “pioneer mining man of Tombstone” — reported that the old Shasta Oil Company parcel had been newly assessed.

“Indications are that a great lake of oil lies beneath the surface in this territory,” the article proclaimed. “Should this prove to be the case, the locators of the old Shasta property have stumbled on to some very valuable holdings.”

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Meanwhile, competition among big players like Standard Oil of California and Getty Oil energized the California petroleum market.

By July 1924, Getty Oil had won the competition and began to drill on the Earp lease. On February 25, 1926, completed with production of 150 barrels of oil a day. Nine successful wells in 1926 produced almost 153,000 barrels of oil.

“Getty has been getting some nice production in the Kern River field ever since operations were started,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Rarely exceeding 300 barrels of oil a day, the Getty wells were not as large as other recent California discoveries (see Signal Hill Oil Boom), but they produced oil from less than 2,000 feet deep, keeping production costs low. Royalty checks would begin arriving in the mail. At age 78, Wyatt Earp’s oil gamble finally paid off.

But there was a catch.

No Royalty Riches

Because of her gambling, Josie Earp had become so notoriously incapable of managing money that Earp gave control of the lease to her younger sister, Hattie Lehnhardt. At the same time, he directed that his beloved wife, “receive at all times a reasonable portion of any and all benefits, rights and interests.”

With that, Earp’s venture in the Kern County oil business became a footnote to his legend, already well into the making. By the time of his death on January 13, 1929, his gamble on oil, still known as the Lehnhardt Lease, had paid Josie only $6,000.

The disappointing results would prompt Josie to write, “I was in hopes they would bring in a two or three hundred barrel well. But I must be satisfied as it could have been a duster, too.”

When benefactor Hattie Lehnhardt died in 1936, her children and some litigation put an end to the 20 percent of the 7.5 percent of the Getty Oil royalty money formerly paid to their widowed aunt Josephine. Eight years later, when Josephine died, she left a total estate value of $175 (reportedly including a $50 radio and a $25 trunk).

The Lehnhardt Lease in Kern County would remain active, operated in 2020 by the California Resources Production Corporation, according to ShaleXP.

Kern County Museums

Beginning in 1941, the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield has educated visitors with petroleum exhibits on a 16-acre site just north of downtown. The museum offers “Black Gold: The Oil Experience,” a permanent $4 million science, technology, and history exhibition. The museum also preserves a large collection of historic photographs.

Oil-Worker Monument at West Kern Oil Museum.

A roughneck monument with a 30-foot-tall derrick was dedicated at in Taft, California, in 2010. Photo courtesy West Kern Oil Museum.

In Taft, the West Kern Oil Museum also has images from the 1920s showing more than 7,000 wooden derricks covering 21 miles in southwestern Kern County. Run by volunteers, the museum collects, preserves, and exhibits equipment telling the story of the Midway Sunset field, which, by 1915, produced half of the oil in California. The state led the nation in oil production at the time.

Since 1946, Taft residents have annually celebrated “Oildorado.” In 2010, the community dedicated a 30-foot Oil Worker Monument with a derrick and bronze sculptures of Kern County petroleum pioneers.

Both Kern County museums played credited roles in the 2008 Academy Award-winning movie “There Will Be Blood.” Production staff visited each while researching realistic California wooden derricks and oil production machinery. During a visit to the West Kern Oil Museum, Production Designer Jack Fisk purchased a copy of 1914 cable-tool derrick blueprints.

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Recommended Reading:  Black Gold in California: The Story of California Petroleum Industry (2016); Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940 (1985); Pico Canyon Chronicles: The Story of California’s Pioneer Oil Field (1985); Black Gold, the Artwork of JoAnn Cowans (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Wyatt Earp’s California Oil Wells.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/wyatt-earps-california-oil-wells. Last Updated: October 30, 2021. Original Published Date: October 30, 2013.

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