The First Mexican Oil Explorer, Edward Doheny

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

A Mexican Oil Tycoon

"Edward Doheny helped Mexico become a world-class oil producer in 1910, which gave Mexico unique political power, and strengthened the political relationship between the U.S. and neighboring Mexico."

If Edward Doheny were to read Myrna Santiago’s “The Ecology of Oil,” he would have many things to say in defense of his oil company’s behavior and practices in the Huasteca region of Mexico. He was quoted in saying “All petroleum companies in Mexico have been a blessing to the communities in which they have operated.”1 There are three main “blessings” regarding his company’s contribution to Mexico that Doheny might argue: economic, social, and political.

Firstly, Doheny and his colleagues created wealth in a region that was not extraordinarily rich. The Hacendados sold many land rights to oil companies, because the “terrain was unsuitable for cattle ranching.”2 One company reported in 1913 that “every landowner who sold to us during the early days of our operation was the envy of his neighbors, and was convinced that he had made a good bargain.”3 Essentially Doheny and the oil companies created wealth out of a landscape that was not fruitful for any other economic avenue, and the landowners benefitted greatly from it with little investment required. “The hacendados found a godsend in the oil companies. For these landowners, petroleum meant total success in putting the ‘worthless jungle’ to work for them. For once they did not have to invest much effort, time, money - or many bullets - to derive an income.”4 The other benefit to many landowners is that the cash was instant, even if exploitation was temporary or non-existent. “What made it even more attractive was that the lease stipulated that if Doheny’s company did not begin exploiting the land in five years, the lease would expire and the couple did not have to return the money.”5 In addition to making use of unsuitable land, and giving landowners fast and easy cash, is the fact that Doheny’s oil company created immediate and continuous jobs which no doubt boosted Mexico’s economy. “In the oil fields, where formerly the tropical jungle supported only a few Indians, 50,000 oil field workers, largely Mexicans, found immediate, continuous employment.”6

Secondly, Doheny accelerated the modernization of the Huastecan culture and provided a better quality of life for many of the Huastecan people. “The foreigner, having increased the worker’s wage so that better living became a possibility...There is not another field of labour in the world the lowly have had the considerate and intelligent treatment as is given in Mexico to this great helpless laboring class by the English and Americans. Schools for their children, hospitals for their sick, baths, recreation center for their entertainment, sanitary homes for their families; water and gardens furnished.”7 Doheny might argue that healthy social and political relationships were created between foreigners and the Mexicans. The “modernized” foreigners provided a better quality of life for the people of Veracruz by bringing better education, health, recreation, and roads. “Downtown avenues were paved with Doheny asphalt and the square was lit with kerosene lamps. Tampico became an international city.”8 Of course this type of modernization resulted in migration and population growth. “From 17,569 inhabitants in 1900, Tampico grew…to 94,736 by 1921 when it became the country’s fifth largest city.”9 Doheny claimed that his oil company’s handiwork was “testimony to the ability of man” 10 in which his company created jobs and hard workers, ultimately improving the economy of Mexico.

Lastly, Doheny created ecologic and political stability in a country that had not seen much of the global market previously. Before oil was exploited in Mexico the country had been through multiple revolutions, and ownership of the rainforest was a political battle frequently fought between authorities, hacendados, and the indigenous people. Doheny would argue he and his oil company settled this battle by buying land rights which created wealth for his company, the landowner, political authorities, and the indigenous. This type of “buyout” created ecologic stability and quelled the violent fighting that had occurred in previous years between the three groups. “There were…political reasons for the hacendados to participate in the process of transforming the rainforest into a commodity…it is safe to assume that indigenous insurrection was not far from the hacendados’ minds when they signed on the dotted line.”11 Foreign oil companies kept the peace during the Revolution of 1914, as they paid the government “monthly ‘contributions’ for six years, until the violent phase of the Revolution ended in 1920.”12 The executives of the oil companies in Mexico argued they were “in an oil region which would produce in unlimited quantities that for which the world had the greatest need - oil fuel.”13 Oil companies like Doheny’s, brought Mexico “world-wide attention as an oil producer,”14 and “Golden Lane…placed Mexico in the first rank among oil-producing countries.”14 Doheny helped Mexico become a world-class oil producer in 1910, which gave Mexico unique political power, and strengthened the political relationship between the U.S. and neighboring Mexico.

Doheny’s real contributions may or may not be accurately noted in Santiago’s writing, but if Doheny were here today, he would have a strong case to argue that he and his company created unprecedented economic, social, and political benefits for the country of Mexico.

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