Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
Natural Oil & Gas Seeps in California
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.
This Dumna Yokuts elder, a 104-year-old man named Pahmit, watched San Joaquin Valley pioneers extracting asphaltum from the same seeps he and his family once mined for traditional uses.
Drawing by J. Spriggs, from a 1929 photo by Frank Latta. From Onshore Oil and Gas Seeps in California.
Oil prospectors first mined asphaltum by digging open pits where seeps occurred. This is a drawing of one such pit near McKittrick, in Kern County.
Drawing by J. Spriggs, from Onshore Oil and Gas Seeps in California.
This mine shaft in the McKittrick asphaltum mine, Kern County, was built in the1860's with redwood timbers. Oil prospectors were often former gold miners, so they tried to use hard-rock mining methods for extracting asphaltum and heavy oil. According to some reports, a single column of pure asphaltum 10 feet high and 6 feet in diameter was mined from a similar shaft in the McKittrick area.
Photo by W. Rintoul, from Onshore Oil and Gas Seeps in California.