This was way more complicated than I thought it was going to be. After all, shouldn’t it be fairly clear WHICH oil well was drilled first, and WHERE the oil was processed?
Answer: No. It’s complicated for two key reasons.
A. There’s a lot of not-so-great scholarship out there, even in books and what seem like primary sources. There’s a lot of repetition of errors that were introduced early on and somehow never corrected.
B. There are various interests at work, each arguing that THEIR particular oil strike was first.
When I first started working on this, I did the obvious search query:
[ California oil discovery ]
And found lots of resources, each willing to tell me where first oil was found, and a few willing to tell me where it was first refined (or “distilled” or “rectified,” depending on what kind of person was writing the text).
One of the first places I went was here, "Oil and Gas Production in California" in The Redlands Fortnightly, a "paper reading" club that has been active in topics social, agricultural and historic since 1895--I thought they would have a useful, historical perspective.
“In 1865, only 6 years after "Colonel" Edwin Drake's monumental discovery in Pennsylvania, California's first productive well was drilled by the Union Matolle Company in California's Central Valley. This area, east of San Francisco, became the scene of much of the drilling activity through the rest of the 1800's. While none of these wells were considered major strikes, they did provide enough oil for the nearby market of San Francisco, by far the largest population center in California in the late 1800's.”
This would seem conclusive. The only problem is (as I learned from other sources), the Union Matolle Company was active on the Matolle River area, in Humboldt County, which is nowhere NEAR the Central Valley. This isn’t a minor error, it’s off by a few hundred miles. (For the curious, the Union Matolle Company operated out of the town of Petrolia, previously known as Petrolea, a fact that complicates search.) So this entire reference is called into question. Yes, the Central Valley IS a major oil area, but not in the 1860s.
Take note of that phrase: “...California's first productive well was drilled by the Union Matolle Company in California's Central Valley...” If you do an exact phrase search on this, you’ll find it’s used in 25 different documents. Hmmm.
Another claim that’s made is that oil was first discovered in Southern California near Santa Clarita at the Pico No 4 site. The problem here is that most of THESE articles use the phrase “Many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil.” This is used in 37 different documents.
So something very fishy is going on here. I spent several hours looking through all kinds of articles, websites, original news archives and books to find out what was going on. One thing became strikingly clear—there is a HUGE amount of copying and repetition on this topic. This makes it difficult to figure out what actually counts.
So… after lots of searching, what did I discover, and how?
There seems to be four major claims in all of the web pages I found.
1. Oil driller Charles Alexander Mentry 1876 (aka Charles Alexander Mentrier) struck oil at Pico No. 4 in Pico Canyon in 1875, but a gusher drilled in 1876 was the first truly productive well. It continued to produce until 1990.
2. The Union Matolle Company 1865 struck oil in Humboldt County and shipped several barrels to San Francisco for refining.
3. Edward Doheny 1892 near present-day Dodger Stadium in downtown LA by using a sharpened eucalyptus tree trunk to drill down 460 feet.
4. Andreas Pico 1855--distilled small amounts of oil from Pico Canyon, but had a very limited market.
After finding each of these claims, I did a search to determine the origins (and repetitions) of each. As mentioned, the repetitions are numerous; getting to an original claim is surprising difficult.
The evidence for each:
1. Mentry—1876: From Chevron's corporate history "In September 1876, driller Alex Mentry succeeded in striking oil in Pico No. 4, despite rattlesnakes, wasps, mud and underbrush. The first successful oil well in California, Pico No. 4 launched California as an oil-producing state." The oil from Pico No. 4 was successfully refined in that year, according both to Chevron (who ought to know, as Pico No. 4 was their well, inherited from Standard Oil of California, their predecessor company) and continued to be productive for many years.
However, as a major oil company, Chevron has a vested interest in having "the first" or "the biggest," so while this claim is true enough, it turns on what "first successful" means.
FWIW, Pico No. 4 is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pico_Canyon_Oilfield
From the Wikipedia article on "Pico No. 4": Well No. 4, the Pico Canyon Oilfield, located about seven miles (11 km) west of Newhall, California in the Santa Susana Mountains, was the first commercially successful oil well in the Western United States,  and is considered the birthplace of California's oil industry. Drilled in 1876, it turned nearby Newhall into a boomtown and also spawned a smaller boomtown called Mentryville adjacent to the drilling site.
 Nicholas Grudin (2003-08-03). "Ghosts of an Era: Mentryville Is a Monument to Both the Start and Decline of the Area's Oil Drilling Industry". Daily News (Los Angeles). ("Scofield formed California Star Oil Works, and with skilled oil man Alex Mentry, tapped the first commercial oil well in California - Pico No. 4.")
 Jonathan Gaw (1993-02-21). "Oil in a Day's Work The Boom May Be Over, but a Few Wells Pump On". Los Angeles Times. ("Oil men had been groping around the canyons of the area since 1876, when the first commercially successful oil well west of Pennsylvania was built several miles south of Lechler's ranch in Pico Canyon."
2. Union Matolle Company—1865: Wikipedia goes with the Union Matolle company find in 1865, but interestingly completely ignores Mentry and Pico No. 4. It then goes on to say that the first productive oil in SoCal was the Brea-Olinda oil field in the 1880s. The reference for this claim is to W.A. Ver Wiebe (1950) North American and Middle Eastern Oil Fields, Wichita, Kans.: W.A. Ver Wiebe, p.198.
Alas, this text isn’t easily searchable, even though it's in Google Books (and the book is hard to find).
From: http://www.beachcalifornia.com/humboldt_county.html "California's first drilled oil wells that produced crude to be refined and sold commercially were located on the North Fork of the Mattole River approximately three miles east of here. The old Union Mattole Oil Company made its first shipment of oil from here, to a San Francisco refinery, in June 1865. Many old well heads remain today."
From: California Division of Mines Bulletin (v. 170, 1950) "[California] first oil by Union Mattole Company from a well near the Mattole River in Humboldt County" (p. 21) However, note-also - a "prospect well was drilled in 1861 on the Davis Ranch in Humboldt County." Apparently the prospect didn’t work out.
(This version of events was drawn originally from the much earlier publication, California journal of mines and geology, Volumes 3-5 By California State Mining Bureau, California. Division of Mines and Geology, The 3rd Annual Report of the State Mineralogist for the year ending 1883)
Another book: Early California Oil: a photographic history - -1865 - 1940 Kenny Franks, Paul Lambert (1985, Texas A&M University Press) "the birth of the California petroleum industry proper may be dated toMarch 25, 1865, with the first commerical sale of oil refined in the state ..." "...the Union Mattole Oil company was incorporated... June 7, 1865, the first shipment was sent to San Francisco where it was distilled by the Stanford brothers...."
FWIW, Walter Stalder records that the Stanford Brothers refined and sold the first shipment of oil from the Mattole well, the first oil produced and refined from a California well. Reportedly, the refined “burning oil” sold for $1.40 per gallon. (Stalder, Walter A., November 12, 1941, Contribution to California oil and gas history: California Oil World. Reference found in: "History in California" from the Conservation Department of California.)
Finally... a really useful finding. Not only does the 1865 claim have multiple sources of support, but finding a price for the refined product lends a good deal of credibility.
I can’t resist adding in this tidbit from the local historian in the Mattole river valley…
1861: Discovery of oil in the Valley first publicized.
1864: All but a dozen or two of the least troublesome Natives killed or captured.
Indian troubles considered over. In 1868 measles kills most survivors.
1865: First oil shipped out by Union Mattole Co. Principal town established
and named “Petrolia.” Oil boom short-lived, though experimental
drilling and subsequent oil excitement recur periodically.
For the curious... Petrolia map.
Just to muddy things up a bit, an article in the Humboldt Times (Jan 23, 1907, by Leslie Gould) claims "several large companies began extensive oil operations in 1898." She goes on to say that oil will cause the Mattole valley to flourish, opening up ever larger markets for the export of tan bark (which she clearly thought would be the salvation of the region, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can see how wrong that was).
3. Doheny-1892: The Doheny claim is made in the book : Petroleum in California: a concise and reliable history of the oil industry by Lionel V. Redpath (1900). But this seems a bit unlikely to me. It has all the hallmarks of a somewhat tall tale (a well drilled 460 feet deep with a eucalyptus trunk?); this is especially odd when later reports claim that the oil-bearing strata was less than 100 feet deep in this region. Despite the title of the book, I find it difficult to believe this story, although it does get repeated (often--again--in exactly the same copy-and-paste language).
4. Pico-1855: Interestingly, this claim of early oil refining by Andreas Pico is ALSO made in that book (Petroleum in California: a concise and reliable history of the oil industry), but is also included in Hanks, Henry G., 1884, Minerals of California, in Fourth annual report of the State Mineralogist: San Francisco, California. State Mining Bureau. But all the articles agree—this was small time distillation, just for the kerosene lights of the mission at San Fernando to use as illumination.
My conclusion: The Union Matolle Company had the first commercial sales of refined oil from a California oil well in Humboldt County on the Matolle River in 1865. Alas, they didn't last terribly long (a year or two at most) and so the award for best long-term continued success goes to Pico No. 4, which began operations in 1876, with continuous production for over a century.
p 47 - from: Newhall, by Maggi Perkins, Arcadia Publishing (2010) - here's Pico No. 4
So.. that's MY answer. And as you probably saw in the comments, Hans did a fantastic job of doing basically the same thing as I did. (Although shorter and probably more quickly.)
Tomorrow I'll write a bit about what this little adventure into primary source search tells us about doing research on the web.