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Williston Basin


In 1912 William T. Thom, Jr. was a sophomore in college, majoring in Geology. On a field trip to the Cannonball River area in western North Dakota, he found some fossilized coral, which led him to believe the area had once been a sea.

Further study confirmed that North Dakota was indeed once covered by ancient seas that advanced and receded, depositing layers of sediment. The layers of porous sediment rest on the earth’s crust, which is made of impermeable granite. Thom, who became a distinguished professor of Geology at Princeton University, and other geologists gradually pieced together the shape of these features, determining there is a saucer-like depression in the earth’s crust underlying a large part of western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

The center, and therefore the deepest part of this depression is near Williston, North Dakota. And so, in the 1920’s, the geologists began calling it the “Williston Basin.” All this was intriguing for people in the oil industry, because this was just the kind of structure that might hold “pools” of oil and gas.

Over a period of nearly 30 years, from 1924 to 1951, there were “23 serious attempts at the discovery of oil” in the Williston Basin, but no oil to show for all the investment and effort. Local residents were curious about the drilling activity, but as the years passed, it was easy to be skeptical. The oil men may have been frustrated after decades of dry wells, but they weren’t deterred. The science was compelling.

In August of 1950 the Amerada Petroleum Corporation of Tulsa, Oklahoma began drilling an exploratory well on the Clarence Iverson farm south of Tioga in Williams County. The work went on through the Fall and into Winter. On January 4, 1951 the well reached a depth of about 2 miles and reportedly produced a pint of oil. It was an encouraging sign, but severe weather forced

Operations resumed on April 4th, and by 9:30 that evening it was official—oil had been discovered at Iverson No. 1. Testing continued through the night to determine the rate of flow, and the next day the Associated Press reported from Tulsa that “North Dakota’s first commercial oil production has been opened.”

The announcement was reminiscent of General Custer’s announcement in the 19th Century that gold had been found in the Black Hills. The place became a magnet for people looking to get a share of the valuable resource. A day later The Bismarck Tribune reported on rumors that “drillers in Oklahoma and Wyoming are loading rigs today to head to this newest of potential oil fields.”

Among the speculators who immediately headed for North Dakota was a future President—George Herbert Walker Bush. The “26-year-old Texas oilman…hitched a ride north from Midland, Texas in a neighbor's Beechcraft Bonanza. They flew eleven hundred miles in the skittish light plane to Minot, North Dakota, rented a Jeep, and began haunting courthouses and tracking down farmers to procure mineral rights. A few weeks later they flew back to Midland, capital of the Permian Basin, with a fistful of leases.”

According to the City of Williston Web site, thirty million acres of North Dakota were under lease by the end of May, 1951. And “by February 6, 1952 forty-two oil supply firms and service companies had moved representatives and were constructing buildings to supply the oil industry from the center of the Basin, Williston, North Dakota.”

Forty years after young W. T. Thom, Jr. started to piece together the geological puzzle, the first Williston Basin oil boom was underway.


Key, James (1962) “Word & Picture Story of Williston & Area” Retrieved from

“Tioga Oil Find Termed ‘Commercial’” Bismarck Tribune 6 April, 1951, p.1.

Froeschle,, F. J. “Tioga Folk ‘Calm’ Despite Oil Find” Bismarck Tribune 6 April, 1951, p.1.

Cox, Stephen F. “A life in the oil patch” Montana: The Magazine of Western Histroy Autumn 2000. Retrieved from