What are historical facts? Who decides what gets written in the history books?
Historians use primary sources (material written or created at the time of the events) to interpret what happened in the past. Secondary sources (textbooks, magazine articles) are written to explain a historian’s interpretation of the past.
So what happens when historians cannot agree on one version of history? Who decides which facts are right?
This type of historical debate is stirring in Lambton County surrounding the the man who drilled the first oil gusher in Canada. For decades historians thought it was a man named Hugh Nixon Shaw, but recent scholarship suggests that it was actually John Shaw.
Newspaper articles from the Toronto Globe and the Hamilton Times in 1861 and 1862 refer to “Hugh Shaw” as a successful businessman who patented a still and opened a refinery in Oil Springs. He died in a tragic accident on February 11, 1863, “of suffocation, caused by inhaling poisonous gases from a well at Oil Springs…”[i] Primary sources do not support Hugh as the oil gusher pioneer. There are no references to Hugh and the oil gusher in any 1860s newspapers. The first reference to Hugh and the gusher appears two decades later in Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lambton, Ontario, 1880. Also telling is the fact that Hugh’s own journal of business expenditures from 1861 to 1863 does not refer to the gusher.[ii]
John Shaw was a significantly less successful businessman. The Toronto Globe described on February 2, 1862 how “… last January found him a ruined, hopeless man, leered at by his neighbours, his pockets empty, his clothes in tatters…”[iii] John got lucky with his gusher, and his accomplishment is referenced numerous times in 1860s newspapers including Hamilton Times, Toronto Leader, Toronto Globe, New York Times and Sarnia Observer (eight separate articles). Hamilton Times proclaimed on January 20, 1862, “Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C.W., tapped a vein of oil in his well… the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day, (twenty-four hours), of pure oil…”[iv] Additionally, secondary sources published by John McLaurein in 1902, A.J. Yates in 1931, Charles Wallen in 1936, and Samuel Tait in 1946 all cite John Shaw as the original gusher pioneer.
If virtually all of the primary sources refer to John Shaw as the man who tapped the gusher, how did history come to celebrate Hugh Nixon Shaw?
Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lambton, Ontario was the first source to credit Hugh but matches the description of the penniless John: “[Hugh Shaw] had been reduced by his want of pecuniary straits, that it is related of him that the very day he struck oil he was refused credit for a pair of boots.” Two men melded into a single story.
An influential scholar, Robert B. Harkness, solidified Hugh as the man who discovered Canada’s first oil gusher in his 1940 publication Makers of Oil History. He refers back to a series of articles that appeared in the Toronto Globe in 1861 and describes how they consistently discuss Hugh Shaw, but those articles mention nothing about the 1862 discovery.[v] Harkness notes, “How John Shaw could live in Petrolia, enjoying the glory of his gallant pioneer-namesake Hugh Nixon Shaw, along with men who knew this to be incorrect, is extraordinary.”[vi]
After Harkness, other historians and journalists began to cite Hugh, and John’s name faded. When Oil Springs celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1958, a flurry of articles credited Hugh with the discovery. The Reverend William G. Shaw, Hugh’s grandson, paid homage to his grandfather with by visiting Oil Springs. He told the Sarnia Observer, “I was quite surprised… to find that there were write-ups about the Shaw well in the newspapers. Father referred to it occasionally but never attached any importance to it.”[vii]
Now, histories written about oil discoveries in Lambton County consistently credit Hugh Nixon Shaw as a penniless, down-on-his-luck vagabond who made an incredible discovery. The stories of Hugh Nixon Shaw and John Shaw have melded together under a single name.
Recently, historians have been revisiting this issue and asking questions. Who really discovered that oil gusher, and how do we decide whose interpretation of the primary sources is correct? These questions continue to keep historians on their toes!
If you would like to read a more detailed exploration of this topic, you can review the Shaw Investigation report.
[i] Toronto Globe, February 14th, 1863, “Hugh Nixon Shaw Obituary”
[ii] Original journal in collection at Oil Museum of Canada, Oil Springs.
[iii] Toronto Globe, February 5th, 1862, “A Promising Trade”
[iv] Hamilton Times, January 20th, 1862, “Extraordinary Flowing Oil Well”
[v] Toronto Globe, August 27, September 2, September 6, and September 12, 1861.
[vi] Harkness, p. 9.
[vii] Sarnia Observer, Ben Fiber, “Oil Pioneer’s Grandson Attends Centennial,” July 2nd, 1958, p. 22.