Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

Genealogical research can best be described as a search for matching up the crosshairs of “time and place” to find what records a specific era and particular location can yield.

The phenomenon of the “boom town” can be one of the most frustrating situations for family historians. While many might think of boom-to-bust ghost towns in terms of the American West, northwestern Pennsylvania’s brief reign in the 1860s as the oil center of the world led to the intriguing saga of Pit­hole City.

What remains of this Venango County “city” are depressions in a meadow left by the cellar holes of some of Pithole’s buildings and structures, among them the Danforth House, which accommodated 140 guests, and the Murphy Theatre, Pithole’s largest building with seating for eleven hundred patrons (see “Pithole City: Boom Town Turned Ghost Town, An Interview with James B. Stevenson” by Kristin R. Woolever, Summer 1984). Today, a visitors center at the site is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Drake Well Museum, located in Titusville. The site, ten miles south of Titusville, between Plumer and Pleasantville, was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Pithole was a “Town of 500 Days.” Over a period of just fifteen months, spanning the years 1865 and 1866, the area from which Pithole sprang up went from a none-too-fertile farmer’s field – to a frenzied community of fifteen thousand people working wells near Pithole Creek – and, finally, to a spectral vestige of barely two hundred residents, all of whom left within a few years.

Here’s where the use of “time and place” comes in. One of a genealogist’s prime tools is the United States Census, but the decennial population count is useless for documenting the inhabitants of Pithole because the community emerged – and disappeared – between the 1860 and 1870 federal censuses.

There do exist some records of Pithole. A directory containing commercial and personal listings for 1865-1866, published by J. E. Barker and Company, and copies of a daily newspaper have Also extant are letters and diaries kept by oil boom adventurers and speculators. Searchers are bound to find more dry wells than gushers, though. “The economically poor teamster or driller hired by someone else is generally very poorly documented in the written record and often not documented at all,” says Susan Beates, Drake Well Museum curator.

It’s never easy for a family historian to research “ordinary people,” and looking for an ancestor who was part of a transitory, short-lived “boom” is even more difficult. For many of those who rushed to Pi thole, there most likely exists no documentation at all, Beates emphasizes. Another challenge is the fact that people may have come to the area around Pithole to work yet not be found in Pithole records. “There were several ‘farms’ in the region and listings for Pithole may have been only for the town proper,” Beates notes, “so an ancestor may have said he lived or worked at Pithole and not be found in any directory.”

Yet there are rare success stories. Beates cites a diary that a family donated to the Drake Well Museum. The diary was kept by a married farmer from Elmira, New York, who traveled to Pithole to work. He invested with others in a well, but in a year’s time he returned home to Elmira and was trying to sell the equipment. “But for this diary, there would be no record of his existence in Pithole,” Beates says.

Despite the long odds at finding data on “common man” ancestors, genealogists must be vigilant in guarding against making assumptions without consulting all available sources, records, and documents. Even if an ancestor’s residence is found to be the same in two consecutive censuses, it does not rule out that a “side trip” wasn’t taken during those intervening ten years. By seeking out the most detailed biography of an ancestor, chronological gaps might be filled by researching the historical context of the region, state, nation, and world.

 

Genealogical Repositories

Individuals contemplating genealogical research in northwestern Pennsylvania may find several repositories to be helpful:

  • Venango County Historical Society, 301 South Park St., Box 101, Franklin, PA 16323-0101
  • Franklin Public Library, 421 Twelfth St., Franklin, PA 16323-0421
  • Venango County Genealogical Club, which administers The Heritage Room at the Oil City Public Library, 2 Central Ave., Oil City, PA 16301-3122

 

Books Worth Noting

Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Darrah, William Culp. Pithole, the Vanished City. Gettysburg, Pa.: William Darrah, 1972.

Dolson, Hildegarde. The Great Oildorado – The Gaudy and Turbu­lent Years of the First Oil Rush: Pennsylvania, 1859-1880. New York: Random House, 1959.

 

The author thanks Susan Beates, curator of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, who assisted in the preparation of this article.

 

James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Ge­nealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Common­wealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press. His newspaper column, “Roots & Branches,” appears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Altoona Mirror. From 1999 to 2003, he served as executive di­rector of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.