Search for new lamp fuel brings first U.S. oil exploration company — and start of petroleum industry.


The stage was set in 1854 for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps.

Oil seeps oil map of Vanago County, Pennsylvania, circa 1880.

Making kerosene for lamps would replace the earlier use of oil in medicinal “Seneca Oil” from Pennsylvania oil seeps.

On November 10, 1854, the lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sold a parcel of land at the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The buyers were George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth. Earlier, Joel Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) had collected and sold medicinal “Seneca Oil” from an oil seep on acreage near the company’s sawmill.

Kerosene Lamp Fuel

Bissell and his partners strongly believed oil could be used to produce kerosene for lamps (a safer fuel than the popular but volatile camphene). If inexpensive to produce, oil refined into kerosene could compete with kerosene popularly known as coal oil. Bissell hired a scientist friend – a professor at Yale – to conduct early experiments.

oil seeps Titusville oil map

“Map Of The Oil District Of Pennsylvania” of 1865 shows America’s earliest petroleum companies drilling east of Titusville, home of America’s first commercial oil well.

Benjamin Silliman Jr., a skilled chemist and geologist, confirmed belief in the new resource. After using a fractional distillation process, Silliman reported that the refined oil was a powerful fuel for illumination. “Gentlemen,” Silliman wrote in 1855, “it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive processes, they may manufacture very valuable products.”

According to historian Paul H. Giddens in the 1939 classic, The Birth of the Oil Industry, Silliman’s 1855 report, “proved to be a turning-point in the establishment of the petroleum business, for it dispelled many doubts about its value.”

Silliman, who later became a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that kerosene could be distilled from oil as readily as coal. His research led to the first U.S. well drilled in search of oil to be refined into the popular lamp fuel (also used today as a powerful rocket fuel).

Professor Silliman 1855 report on turning rock oil into kerosene.

Benjamin Silliman’s 1855 report on a new resource for refining into kerosene led to the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, discovering America’s first commercial oil well.

Deciding to attempt to produce oil commercially, Bissell and his partner Eveleth formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. America’s first petroleum exploration company hired former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake, who was familiar with the Titusville area. 

But in March 1858, the company’s Connecticut, investors formed a new company after arguing with Bissell and Eveleth over finances – about how much to pay Drake. The Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, was established on March 23, 1858, with Drake a share holder. It helped that his former occupation also allowed him free train travel in the region.

The next year Drake, assisted by local blacksmith William Andrew “Uncle Billy” Smith, began drilling along Oil Creek using a steam-powered cable-tool rig. On August 27, with finances almost exhausted, oil was found 69.5 feet deep. Drake and his discovery became famous as the First American Oil Well. 

Although knowledge of Bissell’s contributions faded over the years, his influence on petroleum exploration has remained. “The successful commercial development of the oil seeps…was the fulfillment of a vision Bissell had five years earlier when he was first shown samples of petroleum taken from the site,” noted Pennsylvania historian Neil McElwee in a 2017 essay, George Bissell: Oil Industry Patriarch.

“Among the great oil pioneers of the first decades, Bissell was a giant,” concluded McElwee. “The oil men and writers of the nineteenth century as one recognized George Bissell as the patriarch of their industry.”


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 © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: George Bissell’s Oil Seeps.” Author: Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: November 9, 2020. Original Published Date: November 10, 2014.


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