American oil exploration and memories of western Venezuela in the early 20th century

My interest in oil narratives stems my own personal experience as a native of one of the most representative oil towns in western Venezuela, Cabimas. I grew up in the shadow of towering oil derricks and gas flares, understanding that so much in extractivist communities is marked by the minerals that help forge these cultures. Petroleum and the industry it built has had a profound effect on the professional and personal lives of the inhabitants of the state of Zulia, western Venezuela, since 1914.

Dr. Oleski Miranda Navarro, AHC 2020 Majewski Fellow

Through the Bernard L. Majewski Fellowship, I was granted the opportunity and support to access the American Heritage Center’s catalog of visual and textual documents created and collected by oil companies, geologists, and their family members, while they lived and worked in Venezuela between 1914 and 1954. The wealth of information I was able to acquire both remotely before arriving in Wyoming (including access to interview a former oil company schoolteacher) and once I arrived in Laramie, has been invaluable to my scholarly research on extractivism, memory and emotion.

Focusing on the early days of the petroleum industry in Venezuela, I concentrated my research on American companies operating in the country between 1914 and 1954, including specialized professionals, like geologists, they contracted. By 1914, geology was a young science whose practitioners were driven by the desperate search for “black gold.” Many of the pioneers who had driven the US oil industry in the late 19th century relied on the knowledge of geologists as they began to seek new horizons. Venezuela was quickly identified as a country that showed incalculable potential for petroleum extraction. This translated into significant amounts of capital investment by large oil companies. The list of geologists and pioneers who came to Venezuela in the early twentieth century includes: Ralph Arnold, John Douglas, John Galey, Max Krueger, and Harper McKee, most of whom had been hired by American companies that wanted a stake in the profit bonanza that British and Dutch companies had already begun receiving.

Oil exploration was a difficult undertaking for foreigners at the time, but little-by-little, important reserves were revealed in the Venezuelan state of Zulia. This made many American explorers and geologists, so-called “wildcats,” turn their gaze toward the country, which until then, had been perceived of as poor and was relatively unknown. As Ralph Arnold, one of the most important pioneers and geologists in the petroleum world at the beginning of the 20th century points out: “The work was done under serious handicaps and difficulties. Only two men spoke Spanish. Maps were almost unknown. Transportation was ox-cart, pack animals, horse and mule back or on foot. A very few automobiles were in use in the larger towns. Not an airplane had ever darkened the country’s sky.”1

Along with the wealth of geological surveys, maps, documents, logs and reports with technical details in the AHC collection, can also be found documents that put a personal and humanistic spin on the vantages of these explorers, who arrived in the isolated region motivated to put their knowledge into practice and enjoy the rewards offered by mineral discovery. For example, John Douglas, who was hired by the Gulf Oil Company, a company founded by John Galey whose collection is also in the AHC, lived in Venezuela between 1925-1926 and accumulated a collection of visual and written documents of his stay that were eventually donated to the AHC. In his correspondence you can see his curiosity toward the local environment and the relationship he was beginning to establish with the tropics. His correspondences with his mother show a young man from Maryland fascinated by nature, wildlife, and the landscape of his exotic new home. For example, in one letter he tells his mother about the beauty of the squirrels he encountered and what it meant to kill one of them, inferring the possibility of not hunting anymore: “April 9 1925, Currie and I went hunting yesterday afternoon. I saw a squirrel and shot at it but missed Currie took a shot and brought it down. We were both sorry we killed it; it was such a pretty little thing. This afternoon we went out again and Currie got another that I pointed out. This time the shot didn’t kill at once and the poor thing was apparently suffering (…) we almost felt like giving up hunting. The squirrels here are twice pretty as ours.”2

On the other hand, reports and letters written home that are in the AHC collections also provide a snapshot of the racial thinking that was predominate at the time. For example, Max Krueger, who was originally from Kansas and would become a prominent petroleum geologist, included insights in his geological reports about the desert Falcon state in northwestern Venezuela, hinting at his vision of the inhabitants: “The “Coriano” as the inhabitants of Falcon are called, are quite energetic and as rule are much better educated and of higher intelligence than the Zuliano or inhabitant of the state of Zulia. Their type is much more purely Spanish, and the main intermingling of races has been with the original Indian inhabitants of the country.”3

John Douglas also responds to his mother’s concern when she voices her regret that he has to mix with “half breeds” or impure people. We are also able to gain insight on attitudes of the period of Douglas’ comments about a Trinidadian worker he looks upon favorably because of the man’s good command of English: “There is a “colored gentleman” from Trinidad working on the rig who is quite interesting to listening to. His English is absolutely faultless, none of our darkies’ dialect at all. On the contrary his pronunciation is most exact. They say all Trinitarians talk that way.”4

These assessments were nothing more than an extension of how the other was viewed differently, as might have been made in the southern United States at the time. However, there are also comments such as those made by Ralph Arnold, considered the pioneer of the oil industry in Venezuela. Despite the adversity of his role, Arnold portrays the people who helped him as his best resource, recognizing that their knowledge made very complex undertakings, despite the lack of infrastructure in remote areas of western Venezuela, possible: “The people were friendly, cooperative and generous. They liked our men and our men liked them.”5

Among the images found during the fellowship period are photographs that show the wildness of spaces inhabited by small populations of fishermen or farmers. Images captured also provide a visual record of areas like the Mene or Punta Iguana on the Eastern Coast of the Lake, which remain undeveloped locations after initial oil exploration. There are also photographs that provide important visual documentation that as early as the mid-20s, there was already a great deal of environmental deterioration due to oil extraction. The images show damage in the areas where oil companies had begun to exploit crude. At the time, there were already reports that highlight the complaints of inhabitants about the destruction and how their lives were being affected by changes to the fresh water sources that would have been used for cultivation and carrying out daily life routines.

It was especially interesting to be able to access documentation at the AHC that depicts how similar experiences of devastation were shared between populations of Texas, Wyoming, and Zulia during the early years of oil exploration.

A burgeoning oil industry undoubtedly drove the development of infrastructure in the remote producing regions, such as roads, basic services and new businesses. However, in the case of Venezuela it was an enclave or focused development. In the beginning, many companies also pushed for segregation by following codes (such as Jim Crow) used in the United States. The development of camps for qualified personnel was also common. The camps provided all of the services and conveniences needed for foreign personnel, while hired local workers lived in deplorable spaces in crowded barracks with minimal sanitary conditions. Many companies such as Standard Oil or Gulf Oil took large concessions from the state. However, there was a struggle between companies and regional governments to comply with regulations, and the big oil companies always managed to tip the balance in their favor.

Research at the AHC also led me to documents that give insight into feelings of fear and caution experienced by those who had come to these regions of Venezuela from abroad. For example, John Douglas talks about how a colleague of English origin had been murdered when he had a problem with an inhabitant of the area where the Gulf Oil camp was located.

As a researcher these stories have offered me a broadened understanding of those who arrived in a distant and exotic place as young professionals. The documents I was able to locate give insight into adventurous young people who managed to maneuver through a country with completely disconnected regions. They also paint a picture of novice explorers who arrived with some prejudices but were also able to expand their visions of a world very different from what they were used to.

Beyond the importance of discovering and immersing myself in the content of documents that pertain to the history of the region where I am from, this investigation has given me the chance to recognize that despite the historical and economic importance of oil exploitation in western Venezuela, the region is devoid of socio-historical studies on the subject. The research I have conducted will allow me to begin developing the subject and contribute content that will enrich not only regional knowledge of the history of oil but also general socio-historical knowledge painted through the narratives that have shaped the identity of a country.

Post contributed by Dr. Oleski Miranda Navarro, Visiting Assistant Professor, World Languages Department, Emory & Henry College and 2020 American Heritage Center Majewski Fellow.


1Ralph Arnold, “The Pioneer of Venezuela’s Oil Wealth, 1911-1916 with Note on Trinidad” Letter Ralph Arnold.

2John G Douglas Collection Acc #6017 Box 1 John Douglas’s Letters from a Wildcat Well Venezuela, 1924-1924, p.27.

3Max Krueger Box 36, file Lots of Falcon 3,6,7 and 8 a portion of Miranda 8, Falcon Miranda.

4John G Douglas Collection Acc #6017 Box 1 John Douglas’s Letters from a Wildcat Well Venezuela, 1924-1924, p.12.

5Ralph Arnold, “The Pioneer of Venezuela’s Oil Wealth, 1911-1916 with Note on Trinidad” Letter Ralph Arnold.

Examined Collections:

Edwin Noel Pennebaker papers, 1917-1980. Collection No. 04395

Max L. Krueger papers, 1901-1977. Collection No. 05942

John Gray Douglas papers, 1924-1974.  Collection No. 06017

Frederic H. (Frederic Henry) Lahee papers, 1884-1968. Collection No. 05041

William L. Connelly papers, 1904-1964. Collection No. 01722

Verner Jones papers, 1929-1934. Collection No. 03477

John H. Galey and H.T. Galey papers, 1893-1960. Collection No. 05689

Roy L. Williams papers, 1936-1960. Collection No. 09739

Kessack Duke White papers, 1911-1958. Collection No. 02116

Ralph Arnold papers, bulk 1914-1937. Collection No. 11432

H. Harper McKee papers, 1915-1951. Collection No. 05936.

Hennen Jennings papers, 1874-1930. Collection No. 07586

Eben Olcott papers, 1877-1929. Collection No. 01233

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