So abundant were tar seeps along the far east coast of Mexico that Aztecs are believed to have traveled from the capital of their culture, near Mexico City, to mine, then carry the substance back with them for building cement, or mortar. It was also believed to be used in certain religious services celebrating, for instance, a good year of rain and as a medicine for open wounds. The Coahuiltecan Indians of NE Mexico called the boils of tar in the ground, chapaptoes. Earlier Azteca most certainly called them something different. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico City in 1520 they wrote of being able to buy gourds of heavy tar oil in street markets.
“El aceite sustituirá dentro de poco al carbón de piedra y a la leña, y será el único combustible que llegue a usarse. Esta nueva fuente de inmensa riqueza descubierta en el país, ha hecho pensar a los especuladores de mayor espíritu de empresa que en Mexico debe haber veneros más ricos que los de Pennsylvania, cuya teoría parece sostenerse por la confi guración geológica de la República.”— Matías Romero, 1865.
The short translation of this quote means that oil will someday replace the need for wood, and coal and that speculators 'with great spirit' will eventually find more oil near the great oil springs of Mexico than all of the oil recently found in Pennsylvania (Drake, 1859). Senior Romero was to be proven correct.
In 1876 a British sea captain named George Glidden moved to Mexico, corresponded with the famous English engineer, Sir Boverton Redwood, and began drilling shallow wells in a hilly region north and west of Tuxpam, an area of many oil springs and earthen tar mines. So difficult were his undertakings, in such harsh climate and terrain, three years into his project he killed himself. Glidden's widow sold the Hacienda Cerro Viejo Concession to a British firm called the London Oil Trust. One of the partners in the business venture was Cecil Rhodes of South Africa. One more well was drilled by London Oil and it was a dry hole. Cerro Viejo was condemned and no further drilling occurred. Thirty five years later one of the biggest blowouts in world history occurred not 18 kilometers from Cerro Viejo, in Cerro Azul, and over 228,000 BOPD, from one well, flowed down creeks and dry arroyos for weeks before it was capped.
Undaunted by the results in Viejo in 1881, Cecil Rhodes would form the Mexican Petroleum and Liquids Fuel Company in 1898 and drill wells on a hacienda in the Fubero District south of Poza Rica, near Papantla. Tar oil had been mined on this ranch a decade earlier by digging a shaft into the side of a hill. Rhodes' company drilled 24 wells, one to 1,480 feet, and all failed.
Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was a very controversial figure in world history and volumes of books have been written about him. He was born from wealthy heritage in England and was sent to South Africa at the age of 17 where he eventually entered the diamond mining industry near Kimberley. The funding for his mining exploration and acquisitions came by way of Rothschild and Company, London. His dominance in South African diamonds eventually led him to form the DeBeers Consolidated Mining Company in 1888. He became fabulously wealthy and entered South African politics, was controversial in his political beliefs, thought to be very racial and was a staunch believer in British imperialism.
While governing in South Africa he founded the British South African Police and in 1896 he more or less conquered a vast land north of the Limpopo River to the great Zambezi River and named the new African country after himself, Rhodesia, now, of course, called Zimbabwe.
Rhodes wealth allows him to this day the ability to fund over 100 scholarships per year at Oxford University. Over 30 0f those scholarships are awarded to Americans each year. Bill Clinton, for instance, was a Rhodes Scholar.
After spending nearly 100,000 pounds in Mexico, Rhodes never found any oil to speak of and vamanosed Mexico leaving all of his new Canadian drilling equipment lying in the sand near Papantla to rust away. He died in 1902.
He is buried west of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in what is now Matobo National Park. I have had the privilege of seeing his grave and the surrounding park land, not often visited by Zimbabweans still bitter about British colonial rule. It is a beautiful area of rock outcrop and enormous red boulders, his grave actually picked out of solid rock.
Alonso González, Historia y petróleo, 135; Ordóñez, "El petróleo de México," 143-44.
Oildom, Volume 12, 1921
Wikipedia on Cecil Rhodes
The Oil Fields of Mexico With Particular Reference to The Fields of The Tampico-Tuxpam Region;
E. DeGolyer, 1916, Southern Methodist University
Fuburo Oil Field, E. Degolyer, 1923, DeGolyer Library, SMU