Indian Territory onlookers gathered in Bartlesville for the 1897 “shooting” of the Nellie Johnstone No.1 oil well.
After securing rights to explore in the Cherokee Nation, a small group of businessmen drilled on the west bank of the Caney River and found oil on March 25, 1897, at a depth of about 1,300 feet. A few weeks later, Bartlesville residents gathered at the site to watch the “shooting” of the Nellie Johnstone No. 1, the future state of Oklahoma’s first commercial oil well.
Soon after the Civil War, America’s search for oil to refine into kerosene for lamps prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and the new petroleum industry’s “wildcatters” to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.
The rolling hills and plains west of Arkansas were part of land reserved for Native Americans by the U.S. Congress and home to an indigenous people as well as the “Five Civilized Tribes” — Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw, that had been forced to relocate from southeastern states.
Each of the Five Civilized Tribes established national territorial boundaries, constitutional governments, and advanced judicial and public school systems. The Indian Territory included present-day Oklahoma north and east of the Red River, as well as Kansas and Nebraska.
Fifty-one years before Oklahoma statehood, in 1856 the Indian Territory had become home to the Five Civilized Tribes — as well as the Osage, Pawnee, Seneca, Shawnee, Delaware, and other American Indians. A non-tribal member coming into the Indian Territory to work was required to take out a license or permit; one who married into a tribe was adopted and able to share in tribal property.
In 1859, Lewis Ross, a brother of Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, found a pocket of oil that produced about ten barrels a day for nearly a year. He was drilling for saltwater — brine being much-desired for making salt, a food preservative. Ross drilled his well on the Grand River near Salina in what is now Mayes County, Oklahoma.
After deciding to sink a deeper well for greater production, Ross found oil instead of brine. News quickly spread of the potential source of tribal revenue, “black gold.”
According to the constitutions of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations at that time, the land was held in common by the Indian citizens of the nations — but the individual citizens could lease out a limited amount of land. The Ross well was quickly depleted, but it proved that there was oil to be found in the Indian Territory.
By 1875, Jacob H. Bartles, another pioneer and adopted Delaware Indian, was operating a trading post on the Caney River in the Cherokee Nation. Bartles employed two ambitious young men, George B. Keeler and William Johnstone. They too were adopted members of the Osage and Delaware tribes, respectively.
Within a few years, Keeler and Johnstone started their own competing general store on the western side of the Caney River, in what became Bartlesville. The Keeler and Johnstone store proved to be a successful enterprise.
Although the partners knew of oil seeps in the area at this time, they lacked the financial support and tribal permissions necessary to pursue the opportunity. Keeler and Johnstone would make oil history just around the river bend from their general store.
Early Oil Wells
In 1884, the Cherokee Nation passed a law authorizing the “Organization of a company for the purpose of finding petroleum, or rock oil, and thus increasing the revenue of the Cherokee Nation.”
Five years later, a wildcatter named Edward Byrd secured mineral leases from the Cherokee Nation. He drilled his first well near present-day Chelsea (Rogers County) in 1890, and found oil at a depth of only 36 feet. His well produced about a half a barrel a day but lacked a readily accessible market.
Byrd organized the U.S. Oil and Gas Company, and sold half of his acreage to the Cherokee Oil and Gas Company. His Chelsea venture justly could be called Oklahoma’s other first oil well.
However, in the Choctaw Nation, a well completed by Dr. H.W. Faucett and Choctaw Oil and Refining Company in 1888 found oil earlier, but it also did not produce commercial quantities. This well became known as the “Old Faucett Well.”
Learn more about early oil exploration in the Indian Territory in Another First Oklahoma Well.
Familiar with the Territory’s marginal wells and other signs of oil, Pennsylvania oilmen James Guffey and John H. Galey were exploring near oil seeps about 35 miles northwest of the Chelsea well. They had approached several prominent Indian citizens, including Bartlesville general store partners Keeler and Johnstone.
The Pennsylvanians, familiar with their state’s oil seeps, purchased mineral sub-leases and agreed to pay a royalty of three and one-half percent to the Cherokee Nation on any petroleum production.
Years later George B. Keeler recalled: Guffey and Galey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were drilling at Neodesha, Kansas, in 1893. Mr. Galey got in his buggy and followed the mounds from Kansas to the mound at Bartlesville. He came to my store on the present site of Bartlesville and told me that there was oil here and that if I would get a lease from the Cherokees, he would drill a well.
Mr. Galey said that he knew there was oil here because of the mounds which, in his opinion, had been thrown up by gas pressure; and he called attention to the broken edges of all the rocks which, he said, would be round if caused by water and erosion.
However, before the deal could be completed, Guffey and Galey withdrew their backing and moved on to a new project near Beaumont, Texas. There, on January 10, 1901, the two men helped bring in the first well on Spindletop Hill.
“Shooting” the Bartlesville Well
Meanwhile, George Keeler, William Johnstone, Frank Overlees, their Indian wives, and other locals had acquired mineral leases on over 200,000 acres of Cherokee land. They ultimately secured new financial backing from the millionaire Chicago meat-packer Michael Cudahy’s Cudahy Oil Company.
The new venture’s search for oil began in earnest when they hired the well-known firm of “McBride and Bloom” from Independence, Kansas. Albert P. McBride and Camden Bloom had drilled the state’s first successful well, Norman No.1, in what would come to be known as the Mid-Continent Field.
In December 1896, McBride and Bloom abandoned a 1,750 foot dry hole near the soon productive Red Fork area (today part of Tulsa) to drill a new well for Cudahy Oil Co. It took three-weeks of hauling equipment, tools, pipe and other materials 70-miles northward across the freezing Arkansas River to the new Keeler and Johnstone site on Spencer Creek of the Caney River.
Drilling began in January 1897, the same month that Bartlesville was incorporated with a population of about 200 people. On March 27, after reaching a depth of 1,320 feet, the Nellie Johnstone No.1 well (named for partner William Johnstone’s six year-old daughter) produced promising amounts oil.
G.M. Perry, an expert at using downhole explosive devices, was brought to the Indian Territory well from Kansas. “Shooting” geologic formations to stimulate production had been used since the 1859 Drake well in Pennsylvania (see Shooters — A “Fracking” History).
Perry had been McBride and Bloom’s shooter for the successful Norman No.1 well there — completed in 1892 and claimed to be the first oil well west of the Mississippi river. Liquid nitroglycerin was poured into a metal canister – or “torpedo” – and lowered into the well on April 15, 1897, as a crowd of about 50 curious onlookers gathered.
At 3 p.m., George Keeler’s stepdaughter, Miss Jenni Cass, dropped the “go devil” detonating device down the well bore to set off the waiting nitroglycerin. The explosion caused Nellie Johnstone No.1 to erupt a black column of oil, producing up to 75 barrels of oil a day.
Despite the production, the Cudahy Oil was confronted with the same problem Edward Byrd had faced seven years earlier: more crude oil than the local market could consume With no storage tanks, pipelines, or railroads available, the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 was capped for two years.
The railroad finally came to Bartlesville with the opening of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1899. Oil could then be shipped from Bartlesville to Caney, Kansas, and from there by pipeline to a small Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha for processing into kerosene and other products.
Many Kansas historians consider an 1892 oil discovery at Neodasha the first oil well west of the Mississippi River. Caney made national headlines in 1906 as oilfield workers struggled for weeks to cap roaring flames from a Kansas gas well fire.
With the railroad and pipeline, the Nellie Johnstone No.1, became commercially profitable in May 1900 with the initial shipment of oil at a price of $1.25 per barrel. As the discovery well for the giant Bartlesville-Dewey field, the historic well ushered in the oil era for Oklahoma Territory. It produced more than 100,000 barrels of oil in its lifetime.
In the 10 years following the Nellie Johnstone discovery, Bartlesville’s population grew from 200 to over 4,000 while Oklahoma’s oil production grew from 1,000 barrels to over 43 million barrels annually. Although there would be serious leasing issues and even tragic, illegal dealings with the Osage, the state’s petroleum riches established many industry leaders.
At the age of 12, future oil baron J. Paul Getty started selling the Saturday Evening Post in Bartlesville. By the age of 23, he had earned his first million from oil. He would establish California’s world-famous J. Paul Getty Museum in 1974.
Frank Phillips, perhaps most beloved of all the Bartlesville oil legends, established the international Phillips Petroleum Company, which remained in Bartlesville until merging with Conoco in 2003. The combined company opened two oil museums a few years later to celebrate Oklahoma’s statehood centennial.
After the Nellie Johnstone success, production in the Indian Territory rose rapidly, adding much impetus towards the granting of statehood in 1907. In the 10 years between the Nellie Johnstone and statehood, Oklahoma became the largest oil-producing entity in the world. By the 1920s, many soon famous independent producers bid for leases at auctions in the shade beneath the “Million Dollar Elm” in Pawhuska.
George B. Keeler and William Johnstone are remembered as the Indian Territory entrepreneurs who opened an Oklahoma oil boom that continues to this day. Oklahoma’s first commercial oil well is commemorated north of downtown Bartlesville on Cherokee Avenue, where a rebuilt replica of the Nellie Johnstone No.1, stands at the original site.
The 1948 presentation of the well to the city of Bartlesville appropriately noted: Like the rush for Oklahoma land, the discovery of oil attracted both men and capital from far and near, these pioneers in petroleum development were as rugged and self-sufficient as those who settled the land…Oklahoma’s two greatest industries, agriculture and petroleum, have developed largely hand in hand, and back of both developments are the pioneers, men of restless energy and unbounded faith.
Oklahoma continues to be a leading natural gas producing state with more than a dozen of the 100 largest natural gas fields in the country; Oklahoma has five petroleum refineries with a combined capacity of roughly three percent of the total U.S. distillation capacity.
There are many more petroleum stories to explore about Oklahoma Oil History.
Recommended Reading: Oil in Oklahoma (1976); Oil And Gas In Oklahoma: Petroleum Geology In Oklahoma (2013); The Oklahoma Petroleum Industry (1980); Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Postcard History Series (2000). 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 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. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Oklahoma Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-oklahoma-oil-well. Last Updated: April 8, 2022. Original Published Date: July 1, 2004.