Oil was known to exist in the Oil Creek Valley of northwestern Pennsylvania, but there was no practical way to extract it. Its main use to that time had been as a medicine for animals, humans and the early development of kerosene. In the late 1850s Seneca Oil Company (formerly the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company) sent its manager, Colonel Edwin L. Drake, to develop a way to produce more ‘Rock oil’ from the ‘Oil Creek’. His employer secured a piece of leased land just south of Titusville, a slow-growing and peaceful community. Lumber was the principal industry at the time, with at least 17 sawmills in the area. The land was chosen because for hundreds of years Native Americans skimmed surface oil from the water near a naturally occurring ‘Oil seep’. (Even today Oil Creek still has some natural seeps). Drake tried many ways to access and skim more oil. Eventually he attempted to dig a deep hole by hand. When a hole collapse nearly killed his men, Drake attempted drilling. He was told by local water well drillers that “You cannot drill for Rock Oil”. Drake had to travel to New Kensington, PA, (over 90 miles away), to find and hire a salt well driller, William A. Smith, in the summer of 1859. After many difficulties, they finally drilled a commercially successful well on August 27. Considered the birth of the oil industry, it was an event that changed the world.
The Drake well is often referred to as the "first" commercial oil well, although that title is also claimed for wells in Azerbaijan, Ontario, West Virginia, and Poland, among others. However, before the Drake well, oil-producing wells in the United States were wells that were drilled for salt brine, and produced oil and gas only as accidental byproducts. An intended drinking water well at Oil Springs, Ontario found oil in 1858, a year before the Drake well, but it had not been drilled for oil. Historians have noted that the importance of the Drake well was not in being the first well to produce oil, but in attracting the first great wave of investment in oil drilling, refining, and marketing:
The importance of the Drake well was in the fact that it caused prompt additional drilling, thus establishing a supply of petroleum in sufficient quantity to support business enterprises of magnitude.