Three Forks History: Black Gold coined in Muskogee?

Native Americans used the natural “seeps” of oil for generations, but this unrefined petroleum was primarily considered to have medicinal uses. Edwin Drake drilled America’s first well in Pennsylvania in 1859, ushering in commercial production of the black crude. Soon, new uses were being developed for it as a lamp oil (kerosene) and as a lubricant for engines.

In Indian Territory, residents were aware of oil’s existence under the soil, but without efficient ways to extract it, or a demand for its use, there was little interest in drilling wells. Not until the popularity of the automobile and its need for gasoline was there a lucrative demand for petroleum production.

There are differing accounts about where the first oil well was drilled in Indian Territory. One source says that Lewis Ross was digging a salt well on the Grand Saline of the Grand River in 1859 and hit oil instead. His well produced about 10 gallons of oil a day for about a year. Another source says a well near Wapanucka in Atoka County was the first, dating to 1875. Still another source states that the first “deep” well was drilled in 1884 near Lehigh.

In 1897, a well was drilled near Bartlesville that seems to have been the trigger to attract investors to the territory in search of oil. By the early 1900s oil and gas production was spreading across Oklahoma as more investors put money into oil exploration and drilling.

As great pools of oil were discovered at locations such as Glenpool and Cushing, many landowners, often allottees, became millionaires almost overnight. Those individuals willing to take a risk in drilling wells also became wealthy from the oil that sometimes shot into the air in great gushers.

Sometime in the 1910s, the term “black gold” came into use to refer to petroleum. Oklahoma and Texas had surpassed nearly every other state in the number of oil wells in production, so the term might very well have first been used in Oklahoma. The phrase spread rapidly and is in common use today.

In fact, a journalist named Grant McGee is believed to be one of the first, if not the very first, to use the term “black gold” in his reporting. McGee was born in Missouri around 1894. He earned a degree in journalism from Missouri University in 1916 and that same year came to Muskogee to work for the Muskogee Times-Democrat newspaper. Since the phrase was being used in the 1910s, it is highly likely that McGee coined the phrase while working in Muskogee.

Oil production is still important to the economy of Oklahoma and is one of the things the state is known for. Perhaps the phrase “black gold” bubbled up here as well. It is a fitting description for the black crude that was as good as gold for making millionaires.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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