Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center
Natural Oil & Gas Seeps in California
Seeps in California History
Products of oil seeps were used by Native American groups living in California - including the Yokuts, Chumash, Achomawi, and Maidu tribes - well before the arrival of European settlers. Native peoples used the tar-like material (called asphaltum) from oil seeps for decorative purposes, such as face-painting, and for more utilitarian ones, such as waterproofing boats and baskets. It was also used as chewing gum!
Legend has it that immigrants traveling across California in 1849 used oil from natural seeps to grease their wagon wheels. By the 1850's and 60's some of the early settlers were mining oil from natural seeps as far north as Humboldt County, and as far south as Los Angeles County. They used the crudely refined oil to pave roads, to burn in oil lamps, and as a lubricant for machinery. The oil was mined by digging pits and tunnels at seep sites, and, eventually, by drilling under natural seeps in search of underground oil reservoirs. Most early discoveries of oil in California were found in this way.