Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940

Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940

Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940

Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940

Excerpt

Petroleum played an important role in the history of California long before the area became part of the United States. In 1543 Juan Cabrillo, a Portuguese sailing under the Spanish flag, recorded that the Indians along the Santa Barbara Channel used asphaltum to caulk their canoes. Cabrillo followed the Indians' example, using the substance to waterproof two ships. Another Spanish explorer reported in 1775 that within two leagues of the mission at San Luis Obispo there were "as many as eight springs of a bitumen" that the natives called chapapote, and which they used primarily for "caulking their small water craft, and to pitch the vases and pitchers which the women make for holding water." The Chumash Indians perfected a wooden canoe constructed of planks bound together by small ropes. They caulked the cracks and the binding holes with asphaltum. They also used the substance as an adhesive for affixing arrowheads to the shafts and for attaching bone mouthpieces to pipes.

Much of the oil used by the Indians came from the La Brea tar pits, located near Los Angeles. The heavy oil oozing from the ground also attracted many early oil men. In 1888, Lyman Stewart and Dan McFarland drilled a wildcat nearby, but it proved to be a duster. When W. W. Orcutt, the original organizer of the geological department of Union Oil of California, reexamined the area in 1901, he discovered "a vast mosaic of white bones" on the surface of a pool of asphalt--the skeleton of a giant ground sloth, a huge armored animal that had been extinct for millions of years. As paleontologists subsequently probed the La Brea tar pits, it became obvious that the heavy asphalt had trapped numerous prehistoric animals and, more important, had then perfectly preserved their skeletons. It was perhaps the richest paleontological find ever made.

In addition to the tar pits, the Indians also gathered lumps of bitumen from the beaches, where it accumulated naturally from the many submarine seeps off California's coast. In 1792 Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy recorded observing one of these huge slicks off the coast of Santa Barbara. According to Vancouver, the oil was so thick that the entire sea took on an iridescent hue.

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