Petroleum's full potential was not seriously explored until the mid 19th century, but Native American's were aware of oil seeps that oozed crude into streams in Western Pennsylvania for generations.
The Seneca's, a member of the Iroquois Nation, would extract oil from the ground using a skimming technique as far back as 1410. They used it as a salve, mosquito repellent, purge, and tonic. The Seneca medicine men even regarded the "black water" as gifts from heaven and passed on this belief from generation to generation.
Early European settlers took notice of the seeps of oil in Western Pennsylvania and New York, but it was not until 1850's that interest grew and scientists saw the full commercial benefit of using crude to produce kerosene if extracted in large enough quantities. It was at this time that George Bissell, a New York Lawyer, had a plan to produce oil commercially as an illuminant. Mr. Bissell enlisted one of the top chemists in the country, Benjamin Silliman Jr from Yale to analyze and validate the "Seneca Oil" from PA. With Silliman's positive report George Bissell set up financial backing and formed the "Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company" which would later be renamed Seneca Oil Company.
Rock Oil enlisted Edwin Drake to develop a well. In 1857 Drake chose the quiet farm town of Titusville, PA to begin drilling and create what is known as the famous Drake Well. Drilling was unsuccessful for two years and the project became known by locals as Drakes Folly. Finally, in 1859, Drake struck oil on the same day that the projects head financier, James Townsend, ordered the project closed.
There are multiple claims globally over the first oil well. There were other wells drilled for water and salt brine that would produce oil or gas unintentionally. But the Drake Well is especially significant because it was the first successful commercial well exclusively for crude production and it jump-started a whole industry.
From the Drake's success came an explosion of development and exploration in Western, PA and the Appalachian basin, which started a global commodity that would change the world. Amazingly Pennsylvania was responsible for 1/2 of the world's production of oil until the East Texas oil boom of 1901.
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