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  • Writer's pictureRussell Cobb

Stumbling Upon A Forgotten Crime in the Oil Capital of the World

Digging Into Where That Tulsa Oil Money Really Comes From by Russell Cobb

 

All Crooks at Tulsa: An Investigation, is a reader-supported project. To receive early access to new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber to the "All Crooks at Tulsa" Substack page HERE. Click here to pre-order the forthcoming book "Ghosts of Crook County" from Beacon Press now, or find it in bookstores on October 8th, 2024.


The author in the heady days of the mid-1980s when Tulsa faced its worst economic crisis since the Depression.


A few years ago I was cleaning out my mom's old documents from the basement of her Maple Ridge cottage in Tulsa. I found my father's will, which included a detailed list of all of his financial assets. “Estate” sounds way too grandiose, but there was something odd in there.

My father died of heart disease in 1980 at the age of 37. An experimental heart transplant had resulted in a mountain of medical debt. His father— Russell Cobb II—had gone from riches to rags before I was born. Russell Cobb III? Let us not speak of him for now. He may come into play in this story later. Here I am, Russell Cobb IV, in that old Maple Ridge cottage around the year 1984, blissfully unaware of the turmoil around me. Tens of thousands of Oklahomans were losing everything in a perfect storm of fraud, deception, and low oil prices. So I was not expecting to find lost treasure as I shifted through a pile of paperwork. But there was one thing that caught my eye: a series of mineral royalties in some Oklahoma counties. This meant money, specifically oil money.


There was one big name among the companies listed: Sun Oil Company (today, Sunoco: “The Official Fuel of NASCAR”). My dad owned a portion of oil royalties somewhere out in Creek County, Oklahoma. I knew enough about the history of the oil industry to know that Creek County was once the epicenter of the North American oil industry and that nearby Cushing was still the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World.”


I was shocked to learn I had inherited a share of mineral royalties in the heart of Creek County. Then I noticed the share: .00546688%

 

Pipelines from all over North America converge in Cushing, a small town of vape stores, storefront churches, marijuana dispensaries and a decent-sized prison.

Cushing may not mean anything to you, but this relatively small town is the symbolic heart of the American petroleum industry. When you hear about the price per barrel of oil settling on the New York Mercantile Exchange, that actually refers to the price set for delivery at Cushing, a place that can hold close to 100,000,000 barrels of oil at any time. I became sort of obsessed with Cushing for a while. The city where I live in Alberta, Canada has a pipeline that terminates at Cushing. Cushing has about 10% of all reserves of petroleum in the United States stored in tanks around the town.

If you fly to the southwest out of Tulsa, you will probably see these massive white circular structures outside a small town. That’s Cushing.


Up to 90 million barrels of oil can be stored in Cushing tank farms. Photo taken from the air in 2022 by the author. But then I saw the fraction. My father owned exactly 1/4 of .0054% of one small section on the western edge of Creek County. As I looked further in my mom's files, there were dozens if not hundreds of checks from oil companies. 0.06 cents. 0.12 cents. 0.81 cents. There was one from Koch Industries (yeah, those Koch brothers) as well. Add them all up, and maybe there was $80 total after years of checks issued from companies like Sun Oil to my father, Chandler Cobb.


Even though my dad never made it rich, a lot of people did. The oil money generated from this particular patch of the Mid-Continent oil field created fortunes that are household names: Getty, Sinclair, Skelly, and others. If you combined the money made out in Creek County with the fortunes made in the Glen Pool, the Osage Nation, Bartlesville, and Red Fork, it was not hyperbole to say that Tulsa really was the “Oil Capital of the World” at some point. Everywhere you look in Tulsa, you see monuments to these fortunes. The Golden Driller. The art deco tours of skyscrapers built during the oil capital heyday. The oil mansions turned into museums built by Phillips and Gilcrease. What is the history of Tulsa but the history of oil? But what is the history of oil? How did ancient, decomposed carbon molecules come to be the lifeblood of our society? And how did the commodification of those hydrocarbons lead to almost unthinkable amounts of wealth in a land that was—despite what the leadership of the city and state want to believe—still an Indian Reservation?


It’s even crazier than you think.


Over-drilling in the Cushing Field led to a collapse in prices. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

 

Everywhere you look in Tulsa, you see monuments to these fortunes. The Golden Driller. The art deco tours of skyscrapers built during the oil capital heyday. The oil mansions turned into museums built by Phillips and Gilcrease. What is the history of Tulsa but the history of oil? But what is the history of oil? How did ancient, decomposed carbon molecules come to be the lifeblood of our society? And how did the commodification of those hydrocarbons lead to almost unthinkable amounts of wealth in a land that was—despite what the leadership of the city and state want to believe—still an Indian Reservation?


It’s even crazier than you think.


This story started when I innocently looked to find out why I owned this small fraction of an oil well in Creek County. My dad inherited the land from his dad who in turn inherited it from his father, a man named Russell Cobb I. This first Russell Cobb came to Tulsa in 1923 during the city's heyday.


I knew all that– but how did that Russell Cobb get the land? Who owned it before him?


This is where I ran into the story of allotment, and specifically the allotment of registered citizens of the Creek Nation Tribe of Indians in the run-up to Oklahoma statehood in 1907. You might think you understand what happened during this time. I thought I did. The Five Tribes of Oklahoma were forced to concede their commonly held land and have it allotted in 160-acre parcels to their citizens. The surplus land was then opened up for white settlement.


You probably know that part.


Entry No. 1 on an abstract of a house in Maple Ridge, Tulsa, giving the land to the Creek Tribe of Indians “so long as they shall exist as a nation.” What I did not understand was the utter chaos and confusion that accompanied

allotment and the discovery of oil in Oklahoma. The book and film Killers of the Flower Moon portray one chapter of the saga in the Osage Nation. But what happened in Tulsa? I decided to follow the story of one allottee to make sense of it all. It was supposed to be a micro-history out in Creek County, where my dad owned a tiny fraction of oil land.


If Creek County was the center of the oil boom, I decided to focus on one allottee who attracted a lot of attention in the area. This kid—Tommy Atkins—seemed to be incredibly well-documented. There were hundreds of newspaper articles about him and the millions of dollars in oil royalties his land held.


Because all the oilmen who went before me were dead, I thought Tommy’s story could help me understand why we would end up owning a small fraction of an oil well. I kept tripping over his name. But there was really nothing in any history book about Tommy Atkins, just a bunch of old newspaper clippings that seemed like some sort of crazy magical realist tale.


Tommy was the boy with three mothers.


He was a black man raised as an orphan in Kansas. She was a World War I veteran who had resettled in Los Angeles. He was a ghost, a nobody, an everybody.



An oil well on the allotment of Tommy Atkins in Creek County, Winter 2021. The other thing that was certain was who owned that money. The fortune had gone to the Sand Springs Home, a charity organized by the philanthropist and oilman Charles Page. How Page got that money, and how he proved the existence of his Tommy Atkins, is quite the story. Like almost every good American story it starts around the time of the Civil War.


Come along for Episode 2…


 

All Crooks at Tulsa: An Investigation is a reader-supported project. To receive early access to new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber to the "All Crooks at Tulsa" Substack page HERE.



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