Aerial Old Tulsa

The Story of the Original ‘Oil Capital of the World’

Tulsa’s First Residents 

The area where Tulsa now sits was considered Indian Territory when it was first formally settled by the Lochapoka and Creek tribes in 1836. They established a small settlement under the Creek Council Oak Tree at the present day intersection of Cheyenne Avenue and 18th Street. This area and this tree reminded Chief Tukabahchi and his small group of trail of tear survivors of the bend in the river and their previous Creek Council Oak Tree back in the Talisi, Alabama area. They named their new settlement Tallasi, meaning “old town” in the Creek language, which later became “Tulsa”. The area around Tulsa was also settled by members of the other so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” who had relocated to Oklahoma from the Southern United States. Most of modern Tulsa is located in the Creek Nation, with parts located in the Cherokee Nation and Osage Nation.

Oil Boom

Oil drilling along the Arkansas River (1920s): At peak efficiency, some wells were flowing more than 2,000 barrels a day, helping Tulsa become the Oil Capital of the World.

Tulsa was a small town near the banks of the Arkansas River in 1901 when its first oil well, named Sue Bland No. 1, was established. Much of the oil was discovered on land whose mineral rights were owned by members of the Osage Nation under a system of headrights. By 1905, the discovery of the large Glenn Pool (located approximately 15 miles south of downtown Tulsa and site of the present-day town of Glenpool) prompted a rush of entrepreneurs to the area’s growing number of oil fields; Tulsa’s population swelled to over 140,000 between 1901 and 1930. By 1909, seven years after the discovery of oil in the area, Tulsa’s population had sprouted to 180,000. Unlike the early settlers of Northeastern Oklahoma, who most frequently migrated from the South and Texas, many of these new oil-driven settlers came to Tulsa from the commercial centers of the East Coast and lower Midwest. This migration distinguished the city’s demographics from neighboring communities (Tulsa has larger and more prominent Catholic and Jewish populations than most Oklahoma cities) and is reflected in the designs of early Tulsa’s upscale neighborhoods.

Known as the “Oil Capital of the World” for most of the 20th century, the city’s success in the energy industry prompted construction booms in the popular Art Deco style of the time. Profits from the oil industry continued through the Great Depression, helping the city’s economy fare better than most in the United States during the 1930s.

Oil Bust

The Golden Driller, located near 21st Street and Yale Ave., is one of the many relics that pay homage to Tulsa’s petroleum past.

Following the “Oil Bust” of 1982-84 the title of “Oil Capital of the World” was relinquished to Houston. City leaders worked to diversify the city away from a largely petroleum-based economy, bringing blue collar factory jobs as well as Internet and telecommunications firms to Tulsa during the 1990s, and enhancing the already important aviation industry. During this time, customer-service and reservations call centers became an important part of the local economy. Showing that petroleum is still an important player, an abundant supply of natural gas also helped with recovery.

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