In 1860 state geologist Eugene Hilgard first reported Mississippi’s potential as a petroleum-producing state, predicting that the Jackson Dome would produce oil. But the state’s first oil well was not drilled until 1903. That attempt, near Enterprise in Clarke County, proved unsuccessful. Additional ventures failed in Tishomingo, Jones, Hancock, and Lauderdale Counties before success arrived on 7 October 1926 at the Carter No.1 well about six miles east of Amory, which produced gas until 1938.
The discovery of gas prompted major petroleum companies to come to Mississippi and explore. The most active of the companies was Gulf Refining, which opened a Meridian office and employed geologists, aerial photographers, and magnometer operators to map the surface. The Jackson Oil and Gas Company’s No.1 Mayes began producing natural gas on 16 February 1930, and by 1944 more than 100 million cubic feet of gas were produced at Jackson Field. Oil was also discovered at Jackson, but it was not of commercial quality.
A 1939 Works Progress Administration project to find suitable clay for school tableware in Yazoo County eventually led assistant state geologist Frederic Mellen to a geological structure he believed had the potential to produce oil. He was correct, and on 5 September of that year the first commercially significant oil strike took place southwest of Yazoo City at what became Tinsley Field, attracting representatives of independent and major oil companies.
Most of Mississippi’s significant oil and gas fields were discovered during the World War II era. Following Tinsley, fields were discovered in Pickens, Cary, and Brookhaven in the western part of the state. In 1943 oil and gas were discovered near Natchez. Gulf Refining also began drilling in eastern Mississippi, and Eucutta Field, twelve miles northeast of Laurel in Wayne County, became the area’s first commercial oil-producing field. Gulf Refining then started drilling in Heidelberg. Indications of oil were found on Christmas Eve 1943, and the Helen Morrison well was completed in 1944. By the end of that year, Heidelberg had several wells capable of producing more than fifteen hundred barrels per day. At the time it was considered the most significant discovery in the eastern United States. Later in 1944 gas was discovered at what became known as Gwinville Field in Jefferson Davis County, which ultimately produced the most gas in the state. In 1945 oil was discovered along the border of Lamar and Marion Counties. In subsequent years Baxterville Field often ranked as the highest producer of Mississippi oil.
In some areas, education benefited from oil’s discovery. School districts with producing wells earned severance tax revenues and royalties. The Heidelberg Consolidated School earned enough money from the well on its property to build a cafeteria and gymnasium, erect lights for the football field, beautify the campus, and extend the school term to nine months. The school’s athletic teams also gained a new nickname, the Oilers.
Oil and gas exploration continued after World War II, with Laurel becoming the center of the oil and gas industry in the southeastern part of the state. By 1956 eight hundred producing wells were located within fifty miles of the city. Natchez had a similar role in the southwest. In 1980 Adams County had fifty-six oil and gas companies employing about 1,700 people, while Jones County had forty-two companies employing about 770 people. In 1965 oil was discovered in deeper strata in Bay Springs, prompting further new exploration.
But the wave had already crested. Gas production peaked at just over 253.5 million cubic feet in 1956, while oil production topped out at slightly over 65.1 million barrels in 1970. Petroleum production subsequently has declined dramatically. As oil from outside the United States became cheaper, unprofitable American wells were shut down, and oil investors lost interest in Mississippi, which traditionally had a high “dry hole” rate and where wells tended to be deeper and thus more expensive. Less production meant that fewer people were employed, and by 1982, twelve thousand Mississippians had lost oil- and gas-related jobs. In 2010 Mississippi ranked thirteenth in the United States, producing just over 24 million barrels of oil. That year, the state produced just under 87 million cubic feet of gas, ranking twentieth in the country. Oil production has subsequently remained between 24 and 25 million barrels annually, while gas production has continued to fall, reaching 57 million cubic feet in 2015.
- John S. Ezell, Journal of Southern History (August 1952)
- Dudley J. Hughes, Oil in the Deep South: A History of the Oil Business in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, 1859–1945 (1993)
- James Beauregard Kennedy, “The Oil and Gas Industry in Mississippi” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State University, 1993)
- Mississippi Oil and Gas Board website, www.ogb.state.ms.us
- US Energy Information Administration website, www.eia.gov/state/