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.

American oil history image of Edwin Drake, right, standing with his friend Peter Wilson, a druggist in Titusville.

Although the original wooden derrick, equipment and engine house were destroyed by fire two months after his historic oil discovery along Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, Edwin L. Drake rebuilt at the original site, which today is a park and museum. Drake, right, stands with his friend Peter Wilson of Titusville. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Since “Drakes Folly” 155 years ago, the petroleum exploration and production industry has drilled four million oil and natural gas wells in the United States.

Although others had found oil before, usually drilling brine wells, the Drake well was drilled to get commercial amounts of oil to be refined into a petroleum product in high demand: Kerosene

Hundreds of thousands of people work in this energy sector today – finding and recovering the petroleum resources that drive the American economy. New technologies now produce from once inaccessible shales, deeper water and more sensitive environments than ever before.

Kerosene illuminates the Night

American Oil History

Edwin L. Drake used a steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig to drill his famous well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. He also invented a method of driving a pipe down to protect the integrity of the well bore. Photo from Drake Well Museum Collection.

For many Americans, western Pennsylvania in the 1850s was considered wilderness. When a group of New Haven, Connecticut, investors sought someone to drill in a region known for its oil seeps, they turned to a former railroad conductor already familiar with the area. It also helped that Drake was allowed free passage on trains.

Although earlier cable-tool drillers of brine wells had found small amounts of oil – an unwanted byproduct – “Colonel” Drake’s 1859 discovery well along Oil Creek would launch the modern petroleum industry.

As a result of his perseverance, many new products, including newly invented kerosene, would create the demand for oil and natural gas that continues to this day.

american oil history

Ceiling paintings display scenes of the industry’s earliest stories in the Titusville Trust Building, which opened in 1919. The Drake portrait by artist Alfred Valiant depicts the pioneer oilman flanked by two men holding five-foot cable tools – symbols of early oilfield technology. Photos by Bruce Wells.

In the early days of America, when the sun went down, there was only dim light to resist the darkness. Candles could be made at home or manufactured, and other animal and vegetable oils could also be used as makeshift illuminants. In an effort to extend the day into the night, entire industries were born, including whaling. Whale oil could be burned in everyday lamps and by 1846 a fleet of more than 700 ships sailed in search of this bounty.

However, men could work all day and not earn enough for a single pint of whale oil. The most popular illuminant was Camphene, a volatile mixture of turpentine and alcohol. It was cheaper than whale oil, but it often started deadly fires. For most Americans, when the sun went down, the day was done.

american oil history

Canadian chemist Abraham Gesner patents a process to distill coal into kerosene. When it is found that kerosene can also be distilled from oil, it becomes America’s principle source of illumination.

Then, in the early 1850s, a Canadian chemist introduced a new product to help reclaim the night. Abraham Gesner’s patent read, “I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene.”

Gesner patented his “Improvement in Kerosene Burning-Fluids” — realizing the usefulness of kerosene as a cleaner-burning fuel in lamps to replace whale oil. Because his new lighting fluid was extracted from coal, consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.

Two years before the American Civil War, more than thirty companies used Gesner’s process to produce coal oil. It was cheap, easy to produce and could be burned in existing lamps. The U.S. Patent Office recorded almost 250 different patents for all manner of lamps, wicks, burners, and fuels to meet America’s growing demand for illumination.

Samuel Kier’s Curative

Abraham Gesner’s revolutionary coal-based product soon got a competitor from an unexpected source: a patent medicine. About the time when Gesner invented kerosene, Mrs. Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contracted consumption (today known as tuberculosis), a dreaded killer of millions in those days. Her husband, Samuel Kier, gave her a popular cure-all bottled in Kentucky and known as “American Oil,” which sold for 50¢ a pint.

When his wife’s health seemed to improve, Kier noted that the medicine was made from the same black goo that often contaminated his Pennsylvania salt brine wells.

Always an entrepreneur, Kier soon began skimming and packaging his own bottles of “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil,” a curative for all manner of aches and pains. He went into the refining business in Pittsburgh and began selling his distilled oil labeled as Kier’s genuine petroleum! Or rock oil! A natural remedy, Procured from a Well 400 feet deep, and possessing wonderful Curative Powers in diseases.

Kier’s patent medicine advertisements featuring brine-well wooden derricks inspired New York lawyer and entrepreneur George Bissell to wonder if the same apparatus could be adapted to extract quantities of rock oil from which kerosene could be distilled.

american oil history

Samuel Kier’s patent medicine advertisements featuring brine-well wooden derricks are remembered for inspiring industrialist George Bissell to wonder if the same apparatus could be adapted to extract quantities of rock oil — from which highly prized kerosene could be distilled.

Learning of Kier’s flourishing refining business selling distilled “carbon oil,” Bissell saw a business opportunity.

Bissell knew that near Titusville was a site of prolific petroleum seeps. He formed the “Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company” and hired famed Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman to prepare an analysis of Titusville’s oil. A positive assessment and Professor Silliman’s highly prized endorsement would be a powerful lure to venture capitalists and potential investors. When Silliman delivered a resounding endorsement, investors were convinced.

The “Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York” was soon followed by the “Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut” as the investors maneuvered for maximum business and tax advantage.

Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880), a former train conductor, was an acquaintance of one of the Seneca Oil partners. He became the venture’s onsite agent to drill for oil in Titusville.

“Colonel” Edwin Drake used a steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig to drill his famous well. He pioneered new drilling technologies, including a method of driving an iron pipe down to protect the integrity of the well bore. “Drake faced difficulties from the beginning, the known methods of drilling for oil at the time only ended in failure,” explains historian Urja Davé.

“He spent five months trying to recover oil, and people had lost their trust in him and some began calling him ‘Crazy Drake.’ Even his primary driller, William ‘Uncle Billy’ Smith, also began to feel dejected. In order to overcome the hurdles before him, he invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor,’ an invention he unfortunately did not patent.”

After the drill bit dropped into a crevice that August day, “Uncle Billy” visited the site and noticed oil floating on top of the water in the hole. A common water pump would be used to retrieve the new resource. Samuel Kier, Drake’s first customer, paid about $20 per barrel for oil delivered to his refinery in Pittsburgh. The resulting “Carbon Oil” sold for almost $40 dollars.

american oil history

Visitors to the Drake Well Museum along Oil Creek in Titusville can tour a replica of the Edwin Drake’s cable-tool derrick and steam-engine house. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Investors were overjoyed, especially since a growing number of new types of machines needed oil for lubrication. Other useful products followed, including the invention of a young New York chemist.

In 1865, a 22-year-old chemist left the prolific oilfields of Titusville, to return to his Brooklyn laboratory and experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well-heads.

american oil history

Among the petroleum products resulting from Edwin Drake’s 1859 historic discovery was Robert Chesebrough’s balm he called “petroleum jelly” and later patented as “Vaseline.” Photograph from Drake Well Museum Collection.

Within a few years Robert Chesebrough would patent a method that turned the paraffin-like goo into a balm he called “petroleum jelly.”

In 1872, Chesebrough patented his new product, “Vaseline.” Read more in Oil, Vaseline and Maybelline Cosmetics.

Father of the Industry

“August 27, 1859, is one of those dates on which the world changed,” explains William Brice, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. “Drake’s Folly,” was not such a folly after all, for Drake had shown that large quantities of oil could be found by drilling into the earth.

“Drake is known as the ‘father of the petroleum industry’ because the technology he devised revolutionized how crude oil was produced and launched the large-scale petroleum industry,” adds Brice, author of the 2009 book Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Drake and the Early Oil Industry.

“About part of his life we know a great deal, while other parts of it are more obscure, but it was an interesting life, and his actions changed our modern world forever,” Brice says.

american oil history

A monument to Edwin Drake was dedicated in 1901 in Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville. It was refurbished a few years after the 2009 sesquicentennial of his historic well. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“Although Drake was born in Greenville, New York, March 20, 1819, to Lyman and Laura Drake, during his early childhood his family moved to another farm near Castleton, Vermont,” he adds. “Of his early education we know very little, though it is assumed he had a standard (for that time) country school education in Castleton.”

According to Brice, prior to becoming a conductor for the New York & New Haven Railroad, Drake worked in the dry goods business in New York. “No doubt this 25 year old, 6 feet 1 inch man in his new suit cut quite a figure as he walked along Broadway with a jaunty step and a smile and tipping his top hat to the ladies he passed.”

Drake met Philena Adams from Springfield, Massachusetts, and they were married on December 16, 1845, adds Brice. Their first son, Arthur, was born in 1847, but he died a little over a year later. A second son was born in 1849, but he, too, only lived a few months.

american oil history

William R. Brice, professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, published a Drake biography in 2009 – commemorating the 150th anniversary of the U.S. petroleum industry.

During these tragedies, in 1849 Drake resigned from the Boston & Albany line to become a conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad. When his wife died in 1854, Drake and his surviving child, a four-year-old son, moved to New Haven – where he became acquainted with George Bissell.

Drake re-married three years later to Laura Dowd, sixteen years his junior, in 1857. During this summer, illness prevented him from carrying on with his railroad job – but he retained the privileges of a train conductor, including free travel on the railroads.

By 1858, the Drake family found themselves living in Titusville. While there, Drake and his Seneca Oil Company investors began their search petroleum (from the Medieval Latin “petra,” meaning rock, and “oleum,” meaning oil).

“Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future,” explains Brice. Following the famous discovery, Drake became a Justice of the Peace in 1860. Illness would force him to quit and leave Pennsylvania.

After several years of financial hardship, Drake and his family returned to Titusville with little money and with his health failing. In 1873, residents convinced the General Assembly to provide the family an annual $1,500 pension.

Drake died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on November 9, 1880. His remains were later moved to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville. In 1902, Standard Oil Executive Henry Rogers commissioned a statue for his burial site. A monument – including the bronze statue by Charles Henry Niehaus – was dedicated on October 4, 1901. It was refurbished and rededicated in 2011.

The original drilling site also is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark with stone and plaque that  notes: “The drilling of this oil well, by Edwin L. Drake in 1859, is the event recognized as marking the modern phase of the petroleum industry.

“A series of revolutionary technological changes, unforeseen even by the most prophetic, followed. An emerging source of concentrated energy and abundant chemical compounds, petroleum supported sweeping changes in our modes of illumination, power development, transportation, and industrial chemistry.

“Few events in history have so transformed the face of civilization.”

american oil history

Curator Susan Beates, at left, leads a tour of the Drake Well Museum’s grounds. Exhibits tell the story of the beginning of the oil industry with operating oil field machinery and historic buildings in a park setting.

“Rock Oil 2009 Tour” brought top energy economists to Titusville. Among the participants were John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Branko Terzic and Adam Sieminski – head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The original tools that Drake used for his Oil Creek well can be found at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville. Visitors can tour a replica of the oilman’s cable-tool derrick and 1859 engine house – where oil from the famous well today flows into a “never filling” barrel. Available for purchase in the nearby gift shop is a DVD of the classic film, “Born in Freedom: The Story of Colonel Drake,” produced by the American Petroleum Institute in 1954 – and starring Vincent Price in the title role.

Visit the exhibits at the Drake Well Museum.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.