Maj. Gordon W. “Pawnee Bill” Lillie caught oil fever in 1918.
With American fighting “the war to end all wars” in Europe, a popular Oklahoma showman launched his own oil exploration and refining company.
Although not as famous as his friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody of Wyoming, Maj. Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie was “widely known as a showman, a teacher and friend of the Indian,” according to his biographer.
Maj. Lillie was admired for being a “colonizer in Oklahoma and builder of his state,” noted Stillwater journalist Glenn Shirley in his 1958 book Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie.
The two popular entertainers joined their shows in 1908 to form “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East,” promoted as “a glorious cavalcade of dazzling brilliancy,” noted Shirley, adding that the combined shows offered, “an almost endless procession of delightful sight and sensations.”
However, times were changing as public taste turned to a new form of entertainment, motion picture shows.
By 1913, the two showmen’s partnership was over and their western cavalcade foreclosed. Lillie turned to other ventures — real estate, banking, ranching, and like his former partner Cody, the petroleum industry.
Oklahoma oilfield discoveries near Yale (population of only 685 in 1913) had created a drilling boom that made it home to 20 oil companies and 14 refineries. In 1916, Petrol Refining Company added a 1,000-barrel-a-day-capacity plant in Yale, about 25 miles south of Lillie’s ranch.
The trade magazine Petroleum Age, which had covered the 1917 “Roaring Ranger” oilfield discovery in Texas, reported that for Pawnee Bill, “the lure of the oil game was too strong to overcome.”
The Oklahoma showman founded the Pawnee Bill Oil Company on February 25, 1918, and bought Petrol Refining’s new “skimming” refinery in March.
An early type of refining, skimming (or topping) removed light oils, gasoline and kerosene and left a residual oil that could also be sold as a basic fuel. To meet growing demand for kerosene lamp fuel, early refineries built west of the Mississippi River often used the inefficient but simple process.
Lillie’s company became known as Pawnee Bill Oil & Refining and contracted with the Twin State Oil Company for oil from nearby leases in Payne County.
Under headlines like “Pawnee Bill In Oil” and “Hero of Frontier Days Tries the Biggest Game in All the World,” the Petroleum Age proclaimed:
“Pawnee Bill, sole survivor of that heroic band of men who spread the romance of the frontier days over the world…who used to scout on the ragged edge of semi-savage civilization, is doing his bit to supply Uncle Sam and his allies with the stuff that enables armies to save civilization.”
Post War Bust
By July 30, 1919, Pawnee Bill Oil (and Refining) Company had leased 25 railroad tank cars, each with a capacity of about 8,300 gallons. But the end of “the war to end all wars” drastically reduced demand for oil and refined petroleum products. Just two year later, Oklahoma refineries were operating at about 50 per cent capacity, with 39 plants shut down.
Although Lillie’s refinery was among those closed, he did not give up. In February 1921, he incorporated the Buffalo Refining Company and took over the Yale refinery’s operations. He was president and treasurer of the new company. But by June 1922, the Yale refinery was making daily runs of 700 barrels of oil, about half its skimming capacity.
“At the annual stockholders’ meeting held at the offices of the Pawnee Bill Oil company in Yale, Oklahoma, in April, it was voted to declare an eight per cent dividend,” reported the Wichita Daily Eagle. “The officers and directors have been highly complimented for their judicious and able handling, of the affairs of the company through the strenuous times the oil industry has passed through since the Armistice was signed.”
The Kansas newspaper added that although many Independent refineries had been sold at receivers’ sale, “the financial condition of the Pawnee Bill company is in fine shape,”
Buffalo Bill’s Shoshone Oil
What happened next has been hard to determine since financial records of the Pawnee Bill Oil Company are rare. A 1918 stock certificate signed by Lillie, valued by collectors one hundred years later, could be found selling online for about $2,500.
Maj. Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie’s friend and partner Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody also caught oil fever, forming several Wyoming oil exploration ventures, including the Shoshone Oil Company.
Another legend of the Old West, lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp, in 1920 began his own search for black gold wealth on a barren piece of California scrub land. A century later, his Kern County lease still paid royalties. Learn more about his Kern County leases in Wyatt Earp’s California Oil Wells.
Recommended Reading: Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie (1958). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Pawnee Bill Oil Company.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/pawnee-bill-oil-company. Last Updated: February 16, 2023. Original Published Date: February 24, 2017.