Picture, if you will, the U.S. in 1859. While I’m sure residents at the time would have thought they were living the dream, it was a very different world than today. That difference can be boiled down to a single incident—the Drake well in Pennsylvania, completed in August of that year.

While it wasn’t specifically the first well drilled that discovered oil, it is widely credited with being the well that, at least in the U.S., got investors interested in drilling for oil rather than treating it as a byproduct of a water or brine well. That’s the world that Ray Sorenson recreated at the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

It’s interesting to realize that geology was already a well-respected science back then, and geological maps existed for much of the continental U.S. “You were starting to get regional geologic maps or even maps that show almost all of the North American continent,” he said, though admitting that his specimen from 1855 might have lacked some of the detail that current geologists take for granted. But the big mineral resource at the time was coal, not oil.

“Whale oil had collapsed with overharvesting, and coal oil refineries were showing up all over the map,” he said.

But according to Sorenson’s research, the Drake well didn’t necessary awaken a slumbering continent to the potential of oil. Even if that well had not been drilled, he said, it was becoming apparent to geologists at the time that oil might make a better feedstock than coal for these burgeoning refineries.

Col. Drake (right) is shown at the sight of the well that jumpstarted the oil boom in the U.S. in 1859. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress)

But where to look? With the rudimentary information available at the time, it would be likely that geologists of the day would look at individual states on a frontier basis. And they would have relied—horrors—on maps in libraries because more modern forms of databases didn’t exist. They would have sought out geological surveys as well as reports of exploration expeditions that might have involved geologists who might notice an oil seep in the middle of the wilderness.

Perhaps only a geologist would consider this a noble and worthwhile pursuit. “You’d think it would be a fairly simple and straightforward research to conduct,” Sorenson noted. “But I’ve been involved in it for the last year putting together a database for the Petroleum History Institute, trying to actually capture the literature that was published that mentioned oil and gas in the pre-Drake era.” So far, he added, the team has identified more than 2,000 scientific publications that mention oil and gas from that era.

“You find that petroleum or natural gas has actually been encountered in wells, usually drilled for fresh or saltwater and found by accident, but there are scientific reports of oil and gas in 28 different locations in 10 different states and one [Canadian] province, and in many cases there are actually multiple wells involved in some of those areas,” he said.

There were earlier successes. One well drilled in Kentucky flowed at 25 gal/min, which equates to more than 2,500 bbl/d. “I think that’d be a heck of a well even today,” he said.

Weirdly, Pennsylvania didn’t factor into the pre-Drake pursuit of oil and gas. Other parts of North America held more interest. But that state would repeatedly prove itself to be home to some of North America’s most lasting resources.

Rhonda Duey’s Exploration Technologies column originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of E&P magazine.