Midcontinent Oil Region

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MIDCONTINENT OIL REGION, a vast mineral fuel-producing region situated in the nation's heartland, extending from Nebraska to south Texas and flanked by the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Early in recorded history, individuals noted a sign of oil in the form of a green slick on springs and creeks at widely scattered locations. In the age before kerosine lamps and internal-combustion engines, oil slick was used as a lubricant and as medicine. Teamsters crossing the Plains from the Missouri settlements to the Rio Grande towns greased their wagon axles with oil slick. Before the Civil War, oil springs in the Chickasaw Nation in south central Oklahoma and in north Texas served as spas. Oil was believed to have therapeutic properties, particularly in the treatment of rheumatism, dropsy, and other chronic diseases. Natural gas is a ubiquitous associate of oil in the midcontinent region. Indians in the region lighted their council grounds with surface leakage of natural gas, using gun barrels thrust into the gas seepage crevices as tubes to control the gas flow and to serve as burners.

Early discoveries of subsurface oil in the midcontinent region were inadvertent, largely the result of digging wells for water and saline solution used in salt manufacture. One of the earliest discoveries occurred in 1859 when Lewis Ross, an Indian operating a salt works in the Cherokee Nation on Grand River in Mayes County in northeastern Oklahoma, dug a well to increase the flow from his salt springs. He struck oil, which flowed at the rate of ten barrels a day until the gas pressure producing the free flow dissipated. A year later at Paola, Kansas, oil was found in a well at a depth of about 300 feet. Thereafter, from Kansas to Texas, oil discoveries through digging water wells became a regular occurrence.

Prospecting for oil in the midcontinent region began in the 1880s. In 1882, H. W. Faucett from the Pennsylvania oil fields received a concession from the Choctaw tribal government for drilling rights in the Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. On Boggy Creek near Atoka, he produced a shower of oil and gas 1,400 feet high. Successive discoveries in Kansas, Indian Territory, and Texas opened oil and gas fields. The production was used as a lubricant, an illuminant (kerosine, coal oil, and rock oil), and medicine. The natural gas fields of southern Kansas became an important source for fuel for smelters refining lead and zinc ores from the nearby Tri-State District, for ceramic manufacture, particularly bricks, and for other industrial purposes. Also, natural gas was widely used as a home fuel and an illuminant for lighting city streets and homes.

The premier oil well of the midcontinent region was Spindletop, a dramatic gusher brought in by Anthony F. Lucas near Beaumont, Texas, on 10 January 1901, which produced 75,000–100,000 barrels per day. The advent of the internal-combustion engine with the concomitant increase in demand for petroleum products led to a sustained flurry of exploration by drilling, called wildcatting, throughout the midcontinent region, opening new fields in every state of the region from Nebraska to Louisiana.

Sporadic efforts to control production from the late 1920s through the early 1930s met with resistance from operators, and in 1931, excessive production in East Texas brought prices to less than 10 cents per barrel. Under the 1933 National Recovery Act, representatives of the oil industry authorized the federal government to issue drilling permits and set production quotas. In 1935, however, the Supreme Court deemed the National Recovery Act unconstitutional. In response, oil-producing states formed and joined the Interstate Oil Compact to track and control production and shipping.

Around 1945, midcontinent petroleum production peaked and began to level off. However, the discovery of extensive new fields in eastern New Mexico, the Permian Basin in Texas, and the Wilburton Field in Oklahoma between the late 1940s and the early 1960s continued to dramatically increase the oil and gas resources of the region. Also, deeper drilling, environmental changes, and advances in petroleum technology allowed resumed production in previously abandoned wells, increased pool discovery, and augmented well production.

The oil industry of the midcontinent region has provided a legacy of bonanza wealth and boomtowns reminiscent of the California gold rush in 1848–49. The region's petroleum industry has been a major influence in state and regional economic development, urban and suburban evolution, and politics.


Connelly, William L. The Oil Business As I Saw It: Half a Century with Sinclair. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Olien, Diana Davids. Oil in Texas: The Gusher Age, 1895–1945. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Olien, Roger. Oil and Ideology: The Cultural Creation of the American Petroleum Industry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Rister, Carl Coke. Oil! Titan of the Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Williamson, Harold Francis, et al. The American Petroleum Industry. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1959.

Arrell M.Gibson/f. b.

See alsoAutomobile ; Energy Industry ; Oil Fields ; Petroleum Industry ; Petroleum Prospecting and Technology ; Wildcat Oil Drilling .

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Midcontinent Oil Region

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