Notes & sources (III)

The childhood home of John Washington Steele, better known as Coal Oil Johnny
The childhood home of John Washington Steele, better known as Coal Oil Johnny

So did you read it?

Of course I’m talking about the new story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and now I’m here to tell you all about where it came from and whatnot. What a lucky reader you are today!

Now, Frank Tarr was one of my great-grandfathers, and George Tarr, his brother, a great-great-uncle. The family story goes like this: one winter, when they were in their early or middle teen years, they built themselves a log raft and rode it all the way to Pittsburgh, where they shot a man who tried to steal it from them; and they were banned from that city for life.

Is it true? There’s no evidence at all apart from the tale that’s come down to me, and those who tell it can’t have been much more than children when the two of them died. I’ve scoured the crime columns in Pittsburgh newspaper archives, found nothing. Still, I have no reason to doubt the gist. My off-the-wall version assumes that the story that the boys told when they got back was not entirely the whole truth.

And I, too, have not entirely told the truth: Frank’s name was actually Franklin Washington Tarr (1863–1942), and George’s (?1866–1948) middle name is not known to me. They had two brothers never mentioned in the story, Ulysses S Grant (1870–1933) and William (1875–?), as well as a sister, Mary Melissa (1872–1969). Their father, Martin, died in 1876; their mother Caroline M. Bemiss (1837–before September 1914) remarried, to George M. Staley (c. 1825–1896), before 1880.

My great-great-grandfather Martin — who according to his Civil War draft record stood five-foot ten, blue eyes, light hair, light complexion, farmer, 35 years old — served briefly during the siege of Petersburg, participated in the fall of Richmond and the pursuit of Lee westward, and was present at Appomattox: hence, no doubt, the name of his third son.

Little Hope, Pennsylvania, was (and in a sense still is) a real enough place; I am uncertain if Raymond’s General Store existed so early as circa 1880, but I haven’t let that prevent me from placing it there then.

I’ve drawn most of the rafting lore from J. Herbert Walker (editor), Rafting days in Pennsylvania. Oil Creek is not actually a section of French Creek but an independent watercourse that joins the Allegheny at Oil City, which French Creek itself then joins at Franklin. Much of the oil region is now a state park, well worth a visit; don’t miss Coal Oil Johnny’s house! The small museum at the site of Colonel Drake’s first well is excellent. The well itself is still producing, but not in useful quantity.

I don’t know why Martin Tarr removed from Venango to Greenfield just before the oil rush began. I’ve answered the question with my best guess. I’ve also exaggerated the difficulty of Venango farmland.

The Prince’s tale of the great well fire conflates accounts of several lesser fires. The descriptions are adapted from S.J.M. Eaton, Petroleum: A history of the oil region of Venango County, Pennsylvania. Its resources, mode of development, and value: Embracing a discussion of ancient oil operations; with a map, and illustrations of oil scenes and boring implements (which quotes in turn Austen Henry Layard and Robert Pollok) and Charles H. Harris (writing as Oof T. Goof), History of the Venango oil regions: showing where petroleum is found; the production of petroleum; the effect of the repeal of the government tax on crude petroleum; the location, depth, average production, and ownership of all the wells on the Central Petroleum Company, Boyd, Hyde and Egbert, Stevenson, Tarr and Wood Farms, Bennhoff, Pioneer, Great Western, Bull and other Runs; together with sketches of Petroleum Centre, Pioneer City, Shaffer, Titusville, Pleasantville, and territories, and other places of note in the oil regions.

I’ve extracted additional oil miscellanea from J.H. Newton (editor), History of Venango County, Pennsylvania, and incidentally of petroleum, together with accounts of the early settlements and progress of each township, borough and village, with personal and biographical sketches of the early settlers, representative men, family records, etc., by an able corps of historians, with illustrations descriptive of its scenery, private residences, public buildings, farm scenes, oil derricks, manufactories, etc., from original sketches.

(You’ve just got to love those nineteenth-century titles. They want you to know exactly what the whole book’s about.)

The Prince’s account of his life is adapted from John Washington Steele, Coal Oil Johnny: His career as told by himself, plus additional anecdotes of various oil-region figures as related by Hildegarde Dolson (see below).

The second half of the paragraph that begins “The ship’s side was worked all over…” is adapted from Mark Twain, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter twelve. The disappearance of the Chinese boat at the end of that same section is adapted from Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale, chapter CXXXV.

Charles-Valentin’s remarks on his art of nauscopy are quoted from a short treatise in E. Littel et al. (publisher-editors), The museum of foreign literature and science, volume XXIII, August 1833, pp. 140-144.

The Pirate Queen is based — very loosely; her actual life was far odder than what I’ve shown here — on Zhèng Yī Sǎo, or Zheng’s Widow, a prominent female pirate in middle Qing China. The names she uses for North America and San Francisco are borrowed from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The years of rice and salt. You should read it, it’s very good!

The epigraph has been cut down to size without any editorial markings of the omissions. Go ahead and consult the source — it’s available online — if you want to know more about this fascinating subject. (All direct quotations and close paraphrases are from works in the public domain.)

Additionally, I am indebted to these secondary sources:

Robert J. Antony. Like froth floating on the sea: The world of pirates and seafarers in late imperial south China.

Mike Dash, “Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,”, October 13, 2011.

Hildegarde Dolson. The great Oildorado: The gaudy and turbulent years of the first oil rush: Pennsylvania, 1859-1880.

Peter T. Leeson. The invisible hook: The hidden economics of pirates.

Dian H. Murray. Pirates of the south coast, 1790-1810.

Joseph Needham. Science and civilization in China. Volume 4, Part 3: Civil engineering and nautics.

Thomas J. Schlereth. Victorian America: Transformations in everyday life, 1876–1915.

Alan Trachtenberg. The incorporation of America: Culture and society in the gilded age.