Commercial Oil Drilling Begins

Edwin Drake’s oil drilling demonstrated that petroleum could be the basis of a national industry. Within six years, Pennsylvania was producing one-half million barrels of oil per year.

Summary of Event

On Sunday afternoon, August 27, 1859, William A. Smith discovered oil in a well that he was drilling for Edwin Drake on Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drake’s find was neither the first oil well to be discovered nor the first that was well drilled. However, it ignited an “oil boom,” raising Pennsylvania production from about 2,000 barrels in 1859 to about 500,000 barrels in 1865. Drake, Edwin
Pennsylvania;petroleum industry
Smith, William A.
[kw]Commercial Oil Drilling Begins (Aug. 27, 1859)
[kw]Oil Drilling Begins, Commercial (Aug. 27, 1859)
[kw]Drilling Begins, Commercial Oil (Aug. 27, 1859)
[kw]Begins, Commercial Oil Drilling (Aug. 27, 1859)
Drake, Edwin
Pennsylvania;petroleum industry
Smith, William A.
[g]United States;Aug. 27, 1859: Commercial Oil Drilling Begins[3320]
[c]Economics;Aug. 27, 1859: Commercial Oil Drilling Begins[3320]
[c]Earth science;Aug. 27, 1859: Commercial Oil Drilling Begins[3320]
[c]Trade and commerce;Aug. 27, 1859: Commercial Oil Drilling Begins[3320]
[c]Environment and ecology;Aug. 27, 1859: Commercial Oil Drilling Begins[3320]
Kier, Samuel M.
Brewer, Francis Beattie
Bissell, George
Eveleth, J. G.
Silliman, Benjamin, Jr.
Atwood, Luther
Townsend, James M.

Petroleum was known and used in the United States long before 1859. Jesuit missionaries first reported oil springs at Cuba, New York, in 1656, and Peter Kalm visited and reported on the Oil Creek springs in 1748. By the eighteenth century, Seneca Indians were trading oil at Niagara. Settlers had begun skimming petroleum from Oil Creek for medicinal purposes after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Samuel M. Kier of Pittsburgh, the most significant petroleum producer and marketer before Drake, had begun bottling and selling petroleum from salt wells near Tarentum, Pennsylvania, in about 1847.

Approximately three years later, Kier had developed a distilling process that had made possible the use of petroleum as an illuminant as well as a medicine. His distillate, called carbon oil, came into general use in western Pennsylvania and New York City. Kier Kier, Samuel M. established a much larger market for oil and brought that market to the attention of New York entrepreneurs. The price of the product rose steadily because of its scarcity, thus stimulating a search for petroleum.

Interest in the oil found along Oil Creek was revived by Ebenezer Brewer Brewer, Francis Beattie , who sent five gallons to his son, Dr. Francis Beattie Brewer. Francis Brewer gave some of the oil to Dr. Dixi Crosby, dean of the New Hampshire Medical School, and to O. P. Hubbard, professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College. In 1851, Francis Brewer joined his father’s lumber firm, timbering at Titusville. Brewer spent considerable time examining oil springs on the company’s property, persuading himself that they should be exploited. In 1854, he again visited Dartmouth and met with Albert Crosby—son of Dixi Crosby—who unsuccessfully attempted to organize a stock company to exploit the springs. A few weeks later, Dartmouth alumnus George Henry Bissell Bissell, George visited his alma mater. The young New York lawyer saw the college’s oil sample and was struck by its commercial possibilities as a medicine.

Early oil wells in Pennsylvania.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

In the summer of 1854, Bissell and his law partner, J. G. Eveleth Eveleth, J. G. , sent a representative to examine and report on the Pennsylvania oil property. If the report was favorable, they planned to form a company to acquire the land and exploit its petroleum. The report was favorable, and in September, Dr. Brewer appeared in New York ready to sell or lease part of his oil rights. Bissell and Eveleth, however, decided first to seek advice from some leading New Haven, Connecticut, citizens whom they believed to be potential investors. The New Haven interests were intrigued but wanted confirmation of the preliminary reports and a scientific study of the oil. Eveleth went to Titusville to inspect the properties. He and Bissell Bissell, George also engaged Luther Atwood Atwood, Luther , a Boston chemist, and Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale University to evaluate the oil’s economic value.

Eveleth’s Eveleth, J. G. report was glowing, and on November 10, the deal between Brewer Brewer, Francis Beattie and the partners was concluded. In December, the partners founded the first oil company in the United States, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York. Capital was difficult to raise, however, until Silliman presented his report in 1855. Silliman’s Silliman, Benjamin, Jr. assurance that at least 50 percent of the crude oil could be recovered as an illuminant of immediate commercial value, and 90 percent could be recovered as distilled products with marketable promise, greatly reinforced interest in petroleum as a commercial commodity. The New Haven investors, however, because of investor liability under New York law, required that the company reincorporate in Connecticut.

On September 18, 1885, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of Connecticut was organized. A favorable report from an investors’ committee that visited Titusville whetted the New Haven businessmen’s interest, but continued distrust between the New York and New Haven investors, as well as the Panic of 1857, delayed activity until December, 1857. Then, James M. Townsend Townsend, James M. , one of the New Haven investors, sent Edwin Drake, a thirty-eight-year-old railroad conductor, to make another inspection of the proposed oil field.

Drake, a casual acquaintance of Townsend, had no technical experience but was available and could obtain a railroad pass to the Titusville area, thus reducing Townsend’s expenses. Drake returned with an optimistic report, and on March 23, 1858, the New Haven investors organized the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut. Drake, who was only a minor stockholder, was appointed president and manager. He returned to Titusville in May, 1858, and began trenching to collect oil. Encountering water in a dug well, he decided to drill into bedrock.

Drake then went to the salt-drilling center of Tarentum to secure a driller and began construction of an engine house and derrick at the well site. The driller failed to appear, and work was halted for the winter. In the spring, the driller again did not appear. Apparently, the man thought Drake insane and had agreed to come only to get rid of him. In April, 1859, Drake hired William Smith of Saline for $2.50 a day, including the labor of Smith’s son. Smith, a salt-well driller, was also a blacksmith able to make drilling tools. Smith worked continuously from May to August without significant result. Townsend Townsend, James M. , who by now was financing the operation from his own funds, instructed Drake to pay off his outstanding obligations and terminate the project. The well was then sixty-nine feet deep.

On August 26, the bit dropped into a crevice, and drilling was suspended. The next day, Smith went to the well on a routine inspection and saw a dark film floating on the water several feet below the derrick floor. He and his son used an improvised ladle to secure some of the substance, which proved to be oil. When Drake arrived on Monday morning, he rigged an ordinary hand pump to the shaft and soon was pumping up to twenty barrels of crude oil per day.


By demonstrating that petroleum could be drilled for and secured in substantial quantities, Drake and Smith ushered in the great western Pennsylvania oil boom and laid the foundation of a giant U.S. industry. As the feasibility of obtaining enough oil for mass and industrial applications became apparent, machinery was designed or modified to utilize petroluem as fuel, greatly increasing demand. As demand increased, American entrepreneurs found the supply to meet it. U.S. production quickly expanded, exceeding 80 percent of the world supply from 1865 through 1883.

Further Reading

  • Clark, J. Stanley. The Oil Century: From the Drake Well to the Conservation Era. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Commemorating the petroleum industry’s centennial, this book concentrates on the period before 1865.
  • Economides, Michael, and Ronald Oligney. The Color of Oil: The History, the Money, and the Politics of the World’s Biggest Business. Katey, Tex.: Round Oak, 2000. A history of the oil industry, placing Drake’s well in its industrial, cultural, and historical context.
  • Giddens, Paul H. The Birth of the Oil Industry. New York: Macmillan, 1938. A detailed account of the origin and first ten years of the modern oil industry.
  • ________. Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Oil Industry in Pennsylvania. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948. Photographs and illustrations of life in the oil region.
  • Knowles, Ruth Sheldon. The First Pictorial History of the American Oil and Gas Industry, 1859-1983. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985. Discussion and photographs of the Drake well and its consequences.
  • Owens, Edgar Wesley. “The Earliest Oil Industry.” In Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Petroleum Exploration. Tulsa, Okla.: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 1975. A succinct account of the origins of petroleum exploitation and of drilling the Drake well.
  • Williamson, Harold F., and Arnold R. Daum. The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination, 1859-1899. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1959. Comprehensive, well-documented history of the early oil industry and drilling of the Drake well.
  • Yergin, Daniel. “Oil on the Brain: The Beginning.” In The Prize. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Discusses events leading to the drilling of the Drake well and the immediate consequences of its success.

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John D. Rockefeller. Drake, Edwin
Pennsylvania;petroleum industry
Smith, William A.