Oilfield discovered in 1940 after 57 years of expensive “dry holes.”


Pawnee Royalty Company drilled a wildcat well on May 1940, in Richardson County…after state legislators, eager for petroleum tax revenue, offered a $15,000 bonus.

After more than a half century of dry holes, on May 29, 1940, Nebraska’s earliest commercial oil well was completed in the far southeastern corner of the state. The Pawnee Royalty Company made the discovery just west of Falls City in Richardson County.

A map of Nebraska oil and natural bas producing counties.

Nebraska’s oil production reached more than 2.51 million barrels of oil in 2012 (above), but declined to about 1.71 million barrels of oil by 2021, according to the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

A Nebraska historical marker explains that the earliest “publicized report of oil in Nebraska had been an 1883 newspaper account of a ‘vein of petroleum’ discovered in the same county.” 

“Over the next 57 years the search for oil consumed thousands of dollars, and hundreds of wells were drilled throughout Nebraska,” adds the marker placed by the Nebraska Petroleum Council. “Traces of oil were reported at various locations across the state, but Nebraska did not have a producing well until 1940.”

State offers Oil Bounty

Eager to become an oil-producing state, the Nebraska legislature had offered a $15,000 bonus for any oil well in Nebraska to produce 50 barrels daily for 60 consecutive days. Florida lawmakers, also eager for oil revenue, would do the same (see First Florida Oil Well).

A 1940s postcard image depicts "pool of oil" from the earliest Nebraska well at Falls City.

A 1940s postcard image depicts the drilling rig’ “pool of oil” from the earliest Nebraska oil well at Falls City.

In 1939 and 1940 the Pawnee Royalty Company had two encouraging but unsuccessful drillings near Falls City. A third well, Bucholz No. 1, was begun near the marker on April 22, 1940. On May 29 the well began producing and averaged 169-1/2 barrels daily for 60 days.

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The discovery easily qualified for the Nebraska Legislature’s $15,000 bonus. Richardson County enjoyed an oil boom for three years. The Bucholz No. 1 was located just five miles east of the “vein of petroleum” reported in 1883.

Western Nebraska Oilfields

Modern Nebraska petroleum production would come from the southwestern panhandle, where a 1949 discovery well produced 225 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 4,429 feet. Marathon Oil completed the well, the Mary Egging No. 1, five miles southeast of Gurley in Cheyenne County.

Marathon’s oilfield discovery in western Nebraska ended 60 years of unsuccessful searching in that part of the state, according to a roadside historical marker on U.S. 385 between Sidney and Gurley.

Interest in finding oil in western Nebraska began in 1889, near Crawford, in the northwest corner of the Panhandle, according to the marker. Drilling there took place in 1903 near Chadron, also in the northern part of the Panhandle

Nebraska oil well oil production chart 1950-2012.

Prior to 1950, Nebraska has no office to report production for record keeping. Oil production from 1939 to 1949 is estimated by the Geological Survey to have been almost six million barrels.


A 1917 exploratory well, “drilled in the southwest Panhandle, near Harrisburg, failed,” it adds. “Oil searchers sunk many other dry test wells in western Nebraska until success came in 1949.”

By 1966, wells in the western Nebraska oilfields produced more than 216 million barrels of oil. “The pioneer efforts in this area have resulted in a major contribution to the economy of the state,” concludes the Nebraska State Historical Society.

New technologies, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, would bring renewed activity to Nebraska in the 2000s. With in decade, independent oil and natural gas companies also began testing the potential of the Niobrara Shale in southwestern Nebraska.

Learn about the earliest oilfield discoveries in other U.S. producing states in First Oil Discoveries.


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. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Nebraska Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL:https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-nebraska-oil-well. Last Updated: May 24, 2022. Original Published Date: May 26, 2013.


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