The Lambton County Archives is the archival centre for genealogical and local history research in the County of Lambton. This blog highlights the county's history by exploring the most interesting and unusual records in our collection. Also check out the blog for research tips and information about heritage events in our community.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
What is True History? The Shaw Gusher Question
Portrait of John Shaw
Portrait of Hugh Nixon Shaw
What are true 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
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
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,
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
[ii] Original journal in
collection at Oil Museum of Canada, Oil Springs.
[iii]Toronto Globe, February 5th, 1862, “A Promising
[iv]Hamilton Times, January 20th, 1862, “Extraordinary
Flowing Oil Well”
[v]Toronto Globe, August 27, September 2, September 6, and September