Oklahoma’s Other First Oil Well
Drilled in 1889 and completed a year later near oil seeps at Chelsea in Indian Territory, the story behind the other “first Oklahoma oil well” is not as well known as the Bartlesville gusher seven years later.
Under President Andrew Jackson, Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly relocating native American tribes westward to what would later become known as Indian Territory.
In the thinking of the day it seemed a good place to send them,”remote from white settlements…no thought was given to the possibility of disturbing them again…it was intended to settle them there for all time.”
Title and deed gave ownership of the land to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee where they could establish their own tribal governments under the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. But westward growth and legislation such as the Dawes Act (1887) and Curtis Act (1898) ultimately stripped tribal governments of their authority and reduced the territory from about 150 million acres to 78 million acres — as America’s search for petroleum reached into Indian Territory.
In 1882, Edward Byrd, a Cherokee by marriage, found oil seeps southwest of Chelsea in Indian Territory. Two years later, the Cherokee Nation passed a law authorizing organization of a company “for the purpose of finding petroleum, or rock oil, and thus increasing the revenue of the Cherokee Nation.” Leases were limited to Cherokee citizens
Byrd organized the United States Oil and Gas Company in 1887 with William B. Linn of Pennsylvania and a contingent of Kansas investors: William Woodman, Finley Ross, Oak Daeson, and Martin Hellar. The exploration company secured a 100,000-acre lease from the Cherokee Nation west of Chelsea, between the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway and the Verdigris River. The lease covered portions of present-day Rogers and Nowata counties in Oklahoma.
In 1890, United States Oil and Gas completed its first well on Spencer Creek, within yards of Byrd’s old oil seep, using basic technologies for “making hole.” This Indian Territory well produced oil seven years before the Bartlesville well – but just half a barrel of oil a day from 36 feet deep. Ten more marginal wells followed, and by the last quarter of 1891, the company reported a total of “twelve barrels of oil pumped.”
With little production and no large commercial market nearby, Byrd’s venture shut down. He then organized a group of Cherokee citizens into the Hugh B. Henry and Company and secured additional leases covering thousands of acres for United States Oil and Gas.
John B. Phillips, an experienced independent oil producer from Butler, Pennsylvania, formed Cherokee Oil and Gas Company to take over United States Oil and Gas properties. But under federal law, the leases had to be approved by the Department of the Interior, which reduced them from more than 100,000 acres to 12,000 acres. Cherokee Oil and Gas also bought the 11 marginal wells of United States Oil and Gas wells for “twenty-five cents on the dollar.”
Cherokee Oil and Gas drilled deeper wells and found high-grade oil in two wells (1,450 feet deep and 1,320 feet deep) before a boiler explosion shut both wells down. Other small producing wells followed as the company continued drilling. Meanwhile, another Indian Territory company explored near Bartlesville oil seeps, about 40 miles west. On April 15, 1897, the Cudahy Oil Company “shot” with nitroglycerinn its Nellie Johnstone No.1 well after finding signs of oil in March.
This discovery well began producing up to 75 barrels of oil a day from 1,320 feet deep. Despite the production, Cudahy Oil was confronted with a lack of infrastructure for moving oil to markets. With no storage tanks, pipelines or railroads available, the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 was capped for two years.
In 1898, Congress passed the Curtis Act, “for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory.” The new law, amending the Dawes Act of 1887, is described by the Oklahoma Historical Society as “the culmination of legislation designed to strip tribal governments of their authority and give it to Congress and/or the federal government.”
In Indian Territory oilfields, operations were brought to a standstill because of difficulties with titles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. “The title of the oil and minerals remains in trust with the United States Government under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, who must ratify every lease to make it valid.”
The legislation also stipulated, “the amount of 640 acres can only be acquired by a single individual or company.”
However, both the Cherokee Oil and Gas Company and the Cudahy Oil Company had leased more than 300,000 acres from the Cherokee Nation before the Curtis act. Congressional hearings and litigation followed. In 1902, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia upheld “the power of the Secretary of the Interior to lease Cherokee oil lands,” in litigation over a lease of 12,000 acres held by the Cherokee Oil and Gas Company. Cudahy Oil Company prospects were profoundly affected as well.
In 1904, the Los Angeles Herald reported on the pending merger of Cherokee Oil and Gas Company with Cudahy Oil Company to form a new combined enterprise, the Cudahy Pipe Line and Refining Company. The merger never took place, although the combined assets reportedly amounted to 137 producing wells on the Cherokee Oil and Gas property and 87 producing wells on Cudahy leases for a total production of 2,100 barrels of oil a day.
“The producers are rather chary about signing up with the Cudahy concern,” noted the Weekly Examiner of Bartlesville in 1905. “An effort is being made to sell stock to the producers, but it is said the latter are not falling over each other in an effort to get on the independent band wagon.”
With the Curtis Act having cleared the last impediment to statehood, Oklahoma became the 46th state on November 16, 1907. Cherokee Oil and Gas Company continued to operate, but by 1918 had been reduced to owning half-interest in 375 oil wells at Chelsea. On March 31, 1919, the Cherokee-Warren Oil and Gas Company incorporated and took over the remaining assets of the wildcat venture that had drilled Oklahoma’s other first oil well almost 40 years earlier.
Finally, although the 1890 marginal oil producer at Chelsea could be called Oklahoma’s first, records show that in the Choctaw Nation, a well was completed by Dr. H.W. Faucett and Choctaw Oil and Refining Company in 1888. This well reached 1,400 feet deep, where it also found non-commercial quantities of oil. The “Old Faucett Well” was abandoned after the doctor fell ill and died later that year.
The stories of many exploration companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found in an updated series of research in Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?
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