Seminole Oil Boom

Although the area’s first discoveries came at Wewoka in 1923 and Cromwell in 1924, the long hoped-for giant oilfield arrived in 1926.

 

Many historic oil and natural gas discoveries followed the Indian Territory’s first oil well drilled at Bartlesville in 1897, especially after statehood came a decade later. Few of these discoveries had the tremendous economic impact as the greater area Seminole oil boom of the 1920s. 

 

Although oil from the 1897 Bartlesville discovery could not get to refineries for two years (a lack of infrastucture), the first Oklahoma oil well brought more exploration. Other major discoveries soon arrived, including the Red Fork Gusher of 1901, which helped in Making Tulsa “Oil Capital of the World.”  (more…)

Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well

Cumberland County Pioneers drilled for brine, found oil, bottled and sold it as medicine.

An 1829 spring-poled well seeking brine found oil instead. Petroleum from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well would be bottled and sold for medicinal purposes. Also known as the Old American Well, the discovery was among the earliest commercial oil wells in the United States.

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Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters

When Tom Slick died in 1930, “oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field stood silent for one hour in tribute.” 

 

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” wildcatter Thomas B. Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield in 1912 and became known as the “King of the Wildcatters.” Today Cushing is the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” the trading hub for oil in North America – and the daily settlement point for prices, including West Texas Intermediate.

wildcatter tom slick

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick” by many, on March 12, 1912, Thomas B. Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield.

The owner of Spurlock Petroleum Company, enjoyed great success in the Kansas oilfields after finding oil or natural gas in 25 consecutive wells.

In 1904, Alexander Massey hired an inexperienced 21-year-old “lease man” named Thomas Baker Slick for a 25 percent share in all the leases the young man could secure. Massey and his new employee set out for Tryon, Oklahoma, to look for oil.

Massey later recalled that Slick, born in Shippenville, Pennsylvania, in 1883, showed a talent for securing petroleum leases.

“Tom would go out and lease most of a territory as yet unproved or doubtful as to oil prospects,” Massey noted. “But he’d spread as clean a bunch of leases before a capitalist as you’d wish to see…He certainly knew what a good oil lease was.”

Near Tryon, Oklahoma, Spurlock Petroleum Company spudded a wildcat well at M.C. Teegarden’s farm. Slick continued securing leases that eventually totaled more than 27,000 acres. Drilling generated excitement in the local newspaper and with other wildcatters.

However, at a depth of 2,800 feet, Spurlock Petroleum and owner Massey ran out of patience and money. Tom Slick’s first well was a dry hole – the first of many.

Dry Hole Slick

In 1907, after another dry hole near Kendrick, Slick left the employ of Massey and departed Oklahoma, headed for Illinois.

In Chicago, Charles B. Shaffer of the Shaffer & Smathers Company hired Slick for $100 per month (and expenses) to find and secure promising oil leases. Slick traveled to Illinois, Kentucky, western Canada, and eventually, back to Oklahoma. While leasing for Shaffer & Smathers in Oklahoma, the young oilman drilled at least ten dry holes and earned the unenviable nickname, “Dry Hole Slick.”

Range and township oil well lease maps

An example of township leases similar to those negotiated by Tom Slick, from the Atlas of North Central Oklahoma 1917 Oil Fields and Landowners: Oklahoma, M. P. Burke, 1917.

The Bristow Record newspaper reported that Slick, “continues to gamble on wild cat stuff. Few men have stuck to the wildcatting longer and harder than Slick and associates. It is said he has spent $150,000 mostly on dry holes.” Now also known as “Mad Tom” Slick, he tried his luck again just 35 miles down the road, in Cushing.

As “Mad Tom” pursued new leases in 1912, newspapers like the Cushing Independent encouraged readers to take advantage of leasing opportunities. “Land owners have everything to gain and no risk to themselves in making leases,” it reported on January 25. “It costs from $8,000 to $10,000 to put down a single hole. Unless the promoters can get the leases they want they will not chance their money here, while other localities are eager to give leases and even bonuses in money to get prospecting done.”

The Cushing Democrat added, “We would repeat that we believe it to the best interests of the individuals and all that these leases be granted…And just a word of warning. If you make a lease see that the lessees name is not left blank, but that the name of Thomas B. Slick is there.”

Slick and Charles Shaffer spudded a wildcat well on the farm of Frank M. Wheeler in January 1912.

Cushing Gusher and Crafty Moves

On March 12, 1912, the Wheeler No. 1 well struck oil, producing about 400 barrels a day from a depth between 2,319 and 2,347 feet. It marked Tom Slick’s first gusher – and a giant oilfield discovery. Slick was so secretive about his find that he even cut the phone line to the Wheeler house to prevent word from spreading, notes one historian. Knowing that oilmen and speculators would descend in droves on the town when the word got out, he protected his investment.

How Slick did it is described by a frustrated competing lease man to his boss:

You see, sir, Slick and Shaffer roped off their well on the Wheeler farm and posted guards and nobody can get near it…I got a call yesterday at the hotel in Cushing from a friend who said they had struck oil out there. A friend of his was listening in on the party line and heard the driller call Tom Slick at the farm where he’s been boarding and said they’d hit.

Well, I rushed down to the livery stable to get a rig to go out and do some leasing and damned if Slick hadn’t already been there and hired every rig. Not only there, but every other stable in town. They all had the barns locked and the horses out to pasture. There’s 25 rigs for hire in Cushing and he had them all for ten days at $4.50 a day apiece, so you know he really thinks he’s got something.

Pump stations in Cushing, Oklahoma, where Tom Slick made oil discoveries

Pump stations in the Cushing oilfield, 1910-1918, from the Oklahoma Historical Society. More than 50 refineries once operated in the Cushing area about 50 miles west of Tulsa. Pipelines and storage facilities have since made it “the pipeline crossroads of the world.”

I went looking for a farm wagon to hire and had to walk three miles. Some other scouts had already gotten the wagons on the first farms I hit. Soon as I got one I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases – and damned if Slick hadn’t hired every notary in town, too.

Eleven days later the news had spread. As a leasing frenzy grew the Tryon Star reported, “Our old friend Tom Slick the oilman has struck it rich…Slick has been plugging away for several years and has put down several dry holes…He deserves this success and here’s hoping that it will make Tom his millions.”

A New King of the Wildcatters

Tom Slick’s No. 1 Wheeler was the discovery well for the prolific Drumright-Cushing oilfield, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels every day at its peak.

Slick was suddenly a very rich man. After his dramatic success in Cushing, he began an incredible 18-year streak of discoveries in some of the nation’s most prolific oilfields. His leases in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas produced millions of barrels of oil.

In the famed oilfields of Pioneer, Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole, Slick secured leases and drilled wells that consistently paid off, time after time. His gushers were spectacular: No. 4 Eakin – 10,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Laura Endicott – 4,500 barrels per day; No. 1 Walker – 5,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Franks -5,000 barrels per day. Learn more in Greater Seminole Oil Boom.

Reflecting on his fortunes late in his career, Slick noted, “If I strike oil everyone calls it Tom Slick’s luck, (but) I call it largely judgment based upon experience. Some folks don’t recognize good luck when they meet it in the middle of the road. So I have been fortunate, or lucky, whichever you call it, but I’ve also done a lot of calling good luck to bring it my way.”

wildcatters crowd main street in Seminole, Oklahoma

Newly discovered oilfields of the mid-1920s brought prosperity – and traffic jams – to Seminole, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy the Oklahoma Oil Museum.

By 1929, Tom Slick’s estimated crude oil production was up to 35,000 barrels daily. He was known as the largest independent oil operator in the United States with a net worth estimated between $35 million and $100 million.

By 1930, in the Oklahoma City field alone, Slick had 45 wells being drilled, more than 30 wells completed, and the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of crude daily. Across the Mid-Continent, stories of Tom Slick’s business acumen and integrity grew with his fortune.

It was often told how Slick once closed a $100,000 deal for a prized Seminole lease on a street corner. He met the owner on the street and inquired, “What do you want for that lease’ ‘A hundred thousand dollars,’ replied the owner. ‘It’s a sale, bring in your deeds,’ said Slick.”

Portrait of wildcatter tom slick at outdoor plaza

Thomas B. Slick is among those honored at an outdoor plaza at the Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, in Norman.

Thomas B. Slick’s death from a stroke in August 1930 at the age of 46 abruptly ended a career that had helped supply an energy-hungry nation with the petroleum it needed to grow.

“Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field stood silent for one hour in tribute,” reports the Oklahoma Historical Society. Slick’s biggest strike came a week after he died. His Campbell No. 1 well in Oklahoma City came in at 43,200 barrels per day.

Today, such stories of Tom Slick’s life are told again and again. Across the Mid-Continent, he is no longer known as “Dry Hole Slick.” Instead, Thomas B. Slick is remembered as a “King of the Wildcatters.”

By the end of the 20th century in Oklahoma alone, about one-half million oil and natural gas wells were drilled since the first major discovery near Bartlesville in 1897, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey (learn more in First Oklahoma Oil Well). 

The substance of this article comes from King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930 by Ray Miles, professor of history and dean of the college of liberal arts at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 1933, Tom Slick’s friend and business partner, Charles Urschel, was kidnapped and held for ransom. Once released, Urschel assisted the FBI in catching his abductors, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was sentenced to life in Alcatraz.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/wildcatter-tom-slick. Last Updated: March 9, 2020. Original Published Date: December 1, 2004.

 

Million Dollar Elm

As the Great Depression neared, an auctioneer sold millions of dollars of Osage Nation oil leases in the shade of an elm tree.

The Oklahoma oil industry began in 1897. By the 1920s, leases sold in the shade of a “Million Dollar Elm” brought prosperity to the Osage Nation. Production from Osage County alone launched the careers of Frank Phillips, J. Paul Getty, Bill Skelly, E.W. Marland, Harry Sinclair – and Clark Gable.

painting of million dollar elm in Pawhuska

A circa 1920s painting depicts one of the many lease auctions that took place under the “Million Dollar Elm” next to the Osage Nation tribal council house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Osage auction by E.E. Walters at million dollar elm

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters, official auctioneer of the Osage Nation (seen here on June 14, 1921), sold millions of dollars of oil leases in the shade of an elm tree. Image from “Oil! Titan of the Southwest” by Carl Coke Rister, 1949.

In the spring of 2003, the Osage nation opened a “Million Dollar Elm” casino a few miles from its council house at Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The name came straight from Osage reservation petroleum history. Multimillion dollar lease auctions once took place in the shade of a giant elm next to the council house.

Osage County, at more 2,250 square miles, is the largest county in Oklahoma – larger than Delaware or Rhode Island. On the grounds atop Agency Hill between the county courthouse and the Osage tribal council house, today stands a symbolic elm where auctions regularly took place on hot summer afternoons.

Soon after Oklahoma statehood, more Osage discoveries brought thousands to Bartlesville, Hominy, Fairfax, Grainola and Burbank. All the oilfields produced a high-quality, easily refined oil. First drilled in 1920, the Burbank field and several others soon became one of the richest in Oklahoma.

At its peak, the Burbank oilfield produced more than 70,000 barrels a day from more than 1,800 wells. Phillips Petroleum made a fortune there. Other petroleum companies got their start in Osage oilfields, including Conoco (originally Marland Oil), Skelly Oil, Carter Oil (later incorporated into Standard Oil), and Gypsy Oil Company (later Gulf).

Traces of oil had long been noted in the area, including slicks on creeks and oil seeps. The southern end of the Flint Hills, which ranges down from Kansas, has rocks 298 million years old, according to Jenk Jones Jr. of the Tallgrass National Preserve in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company made the first drilling deal with the Osage Tribe, Jones noted in 1991. The oil company received rights to all drilling in the Osage Nation for 10 years, beginning in 1896. The next year the territory’s first commercial producer was completed, the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well, in what is now a park in Bartlesville. 

All of Osage County was open for bidding after 1916 – just in time for the greatest years of the Osage boom, triggered by demands of World War I and the postwar growth in automobiles. “To get a sense of how the oil business exploded in the Osage, there were about 6,000 barrels produced in 1900, more than 11 million in 1914. The Osage boom and a vast leap in the number of automobiles coincided remarkably well,” Jones explained in a Tulsa World article.

During the height of the drilling boom from 1919 to 1928 northwest of Tulsa, more than $202 million was paid to the tribe in oil and natural gas royalties, bonuses, interest and land rentals. “The Osage fields were an oilman’s dream,” reported Jones. “The oil was a high-grade, with a good conversion to gasoline ratio. It was easily refined, with a very high percentage of kerosene. It was free of sulfur and asphalt.”

Colonel Walters in 1922 at Osage lease sale elm tree

Colonel Walters in 1922 sold a million-dollar oil lease for the Osage Nation. On March 18, 1924, he accepted a $2 million bid for a single 160-acre Osage lease.

Million Dollar Auctioneer

According to Corey Bone of the Oklahoma Historical Society, the profitable auctions of Osage mineral rights were based on “headrights” from a 1906 tribal Sadlympopulation count.

“Unlike other landholders, the Osage were able to retain collective ownership of subsurface mineral rights, rather than having to accept allotments to individual owners,” Bone explained. “Instead, tribal members received ‘headrights’ that assured them an equal share of mineral rights sales equivalent to income from 658 acres.”

She added that a headright could not be sold, but an individual could sell his or her surface rights. An average Osage family of a husband, wife, and three children would receive more than $65,000 a year in 1926,” she noted. “By 1939 Osage individuals had received a total of more than $100 million in royalties and bonuses.” (Sadly, Osage oil wealth also brought criminal conspiracies and the murders of men, women, and children, killed for the headrights to their land.)

Among those who helped the Osage, beginning in 1912, was a skilled auctioneer of the tribe’s oil leases, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters. He worked for only about $10 a day but netted millions of dollars for the tribe. Walters had been named after the first Union martyr at the start of the Civil War, Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteers.

The “Million Dollar Auctioneer” would become famous from the Osage lease bids in Pawhuska. In 1926, a statue of Walters and Osage Chief Bacon Rind was dedicated in his nearby hometown of Skedee.

county map and Pawhuska

Map of Osage County, Oklahoma, townships courtesy OKGenWeb.

“He knew the oilmen intimately and was an expert at getting them to raise bids,” Jones explained. “So subtle were their signals that L.E. Phillips reportedly ‘bid’ $100,000 for a lease by brushing a fly away from his nose.”

The elm’s name was not given by tribal leaders – but by reporters and magazine writers who were dramatizing the events when founders of the world’s greatest oil companies came in person to bid. It truly earned its name when 18 tracts brought bonuses of $1 million on a single day, November 11, 1912.

On March 18, 1924, Walters secured a bid of $1,995,000 from Josh Cosden, at that time the highest-paid price for a 160-acre tract. By 1928 Walters had earned around $157 million for the Osage tribe. He presided over the lease auctions throughout the 1930s. Learn more in Million Dollar Auctioneer.

Osage Oil Boom

A large cast of national characters are linked to petroleum exploration and production on the Osage Nation. Future president Herbert Hoover, an orphan, spent summer months in Pawhuska after his uncle Major Lahan J. Miles was appointed agent to the Osages in 1878.

picture of world's only main street oil well in Oklahoma

A registered historic site greets Main Street visitors in Barnsdall, Osage County, Oklahoma.

Southeast of Pawhuska the town Pershing was an oil boom town named for Gen. John J. Pershing, leader of U.S. forces in Europe during World War I.

Tom Mix, future silent film star, was a town marshal in Dewey just east of the Osage County border. The Wild West show of the 101 Ranch in Kay County west of the Osage gave him the boost that sent him to Hollywood. Clark Gable worked as a roustabout in the Osage oilfields, especially around Barnsdall and Pershing, before heading to Hollywood.

Memories of what took place beneath the Osage Nation elm did not fade after the original tree died in the 1980s. The latest elm, dedicated during a September 15, 2006, ceremony, grows new roots into the historic site. Thousands of visitors today gamble at six Osage Nation “Million Dollar Elm” casinos.

Special thanks to research found in “Osage County History” by Jenk Jones Jr., presented March 1, 2003, at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve docent reorientation in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. In 2011, Oklahoma City-based Chaparral Energy reportedly began working on methods to increase production from Osage oilfields that could bring $11 billion to Osage County and provide the Osage Nation with $1.2 billion in royalty payments over the next 30 years.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Million Dollar Elm,” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/million-dollar-elm. Last Updated: March 2, 2020. Original Published Date: March 24, 2014.

First Kansas Oil Well

Natural gas wells at Paola and 1892 oilfield discovery at Neodesha reveal giant Mid-Continent field.

 

When America’s first commercial oil well was drilled in 1859 near oil seeps along a creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania, a new breed of entrepreneurs began searching for oil seeps in other states. Refineries wanted the “rock oil” to make a popular lamp fuel, kerosene.

School bus at Kansas Oil Museum and discovery well in Neodesha

The Norman No. 1 Well Museum in Neodesha, Kansas, preserves the state’s extensive oil heritage.

In 1860, George Brown, a newspaperman in Kansas Territory, recalled stories about an oil spring in Lykins County. Brown, who had arrived a few years earlier from the Pennsylvania oil regions, gathered a few partners and drilled three shallow wells one mile east of Paola.

After two dry holes, the third well had reached about 100 feet deep on the Baptist Indian Mission grounds owned by David Lykins when it produced a few barrels of oil. But the Civil War ended his quest for oil riches.

Although other exploration companies returned to Lykins County (renamed Miami County in 1861) after the war, it would be almost two decades before Kansas became a producing state — thanks to a natural gas discovery.
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