At the end of Sheffield’s 1865 diary there appears a detailed, 183-mile itinerary between his home in Springwater and Shaffer Farm in Pennsylvania. What was he doing there? A simple answer might be that, after Edwin Drake struck oil in 1859, hundreds then eventually tens of thousands traveled to the Oil Creek region for America’s first petroleum boom. But the causes appear to have been more complex. On 25 August 1863, the 33-year-old Sheffield had been examined for his fitness as a Union soldier, along with most of Springwater’s men. A month later, he “Paid $300 for war commutation money” (30 Sept. 1863)—a provision of the 1863 Enrollment act that enabled men to avoid conscription through a tax that today would be the equivalent of some $6,000. Had he enlisted, the $13 monthly pay for a private almost certainly would not have offset his lost agricultural earnings; absent a sibling (William B. was over fifty years old) or sons (Sheffield was unmarried) to replace him, would he have had to sell his farm? It may have been that, between the costs of recouping his commutation and supporting his farm, undertaking the journey to Oil Creek was one of Sheffield’s few remaining options.
After a brief scouting trip, he set out on 12 January 1864, along with horses, wagon, and two young men as his crew—the latter returning home almost immediately because “They are sick of the oil regions” (21 Jan. 1864). This rapid turnover of labor would prove to be a recurring problem for Sheffield in Titusville’s boomtown economy; over the course of two years, his diary mentions more than two dozen men whose employment ranged from a few days to several months. Based at Shaffer Farm, the terminus of the Oil Creek Railroad, he along with perhaps “12 or 15 hundred” (20 Feb. 1864) other teams of horses and wagons were employed in hauling oil to the storage sheds—each wooden barrel weighing 350 pounds when full. The oil dripping from those barrels, a visitor wrote, “mixed thoroughly with the dirt from the road-bed, the travel of the horses and wagons kept it from drying, thus insuring, in perpetuity, the most disagreeable, pasty mass that ever man or beast forced a way through” (Cone and Johns 99). The life of a horse along Oil Creek was short and appalling.
By September of 1864 Sheffield and his drivers had begun towing newly arrived fortune-seekers upstream in packet boats—an expensive investment on his part—but really any job that called for transport: “apples and coal” (2 Nov 1864), feed for horses, lumber, furniture, “iron oil pipe” (16 Sept. 1864). This last type of cargo proved to be fateful, for the construction of oil pipelines, along with completion of the railroad from Shaffer Farm to Oil City on the Allegheny River, was rendering teamsters obsolete. On June 16, 1865 he writes that “The teamsters has made a strike,” but their victory was short-lived and by November Sheffield was selling off his “passenger boat, sleigh and canvas,” then the contracts of his laborers (10, 18 Nov. 1865).
Considered out of context, it seems insane that anyone would choose Sheffield’s life as a teamster during these two years; it only makes sense in relation to the precarity of his farm back in Springwater. In this regard the “choice” between agriculture and oil revenues would be familiar to New York farmers today, the desperate allure of hydrofracking contracts. Sheffield physically traveled between the two economic worlds—six round trips by road or train during this period. None of these journeys was more important, however, than one in late June of 1864 for a memorable Fourth of July: “I was married to Miss Mary Robinson at 9 o’clock today.” The next day, he had “commenced to shear sheep”; two months later he was back at Oil Creek (31 Aug. 1865). So we can only imagine Sheffield’s mixture of exhaustion and disappointment, pride and anticipation, when he concluded this chapter of his life: “I came home today from Oil Creek, Pennsylvania” (6 Dec. 1865).
--Cone, Andrew, and Walter R. Johns. Petrolia: A Brief History of the Pennsylvania Oil Region, Its Development, Growth, Resources, Etc., From 1859 to 1869. New York: D. Appelton and Company, 1870.
--Morris, Edmund. Derrick and Drill, or an Insight Into the Discovery, Development, and Present Condition and Future Prospects of Petroleum, in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, &. New York: James Miller, 1865.
--Whiteshot, Charles Austin Whiteshot. The Oil-well Driller: A History of the World’s Greatest Enterprise, The Oil Industry. Mannington, WV: Charles Austin Whiteshot, 1905.