The thick material was like tar or molasses, but the American Indians had learned to thin and purify it by heating and straining. Its principal use was as a medicine for sprains and rheumatism. The Iroquois, however, used it as a balm for troublesome sores on horses, and Chippewa braves would rub it on their bodies and claim that it made them active and quick. It had different names in different parts of North America, but at least five tribes—the Sioux, Miami, Seneca, Ottawa and Iroquois—referred to it as atouronton. Today this substance is known as petroleum.
Contemporary archaeologists are constantly unearthing remains of ancient American cultures which indicate that petroleum was in use thousands of years before the first colonials arrived. No written proof of this has yet been found, but the signs, coming in from Canadian and Mexican as well as numerous sites in the United States, are difficult to dispute.
When the first colonials came to America, they found that the Indians regularly gathered surface oil. The substance built up as a thick layer over oil springs and pools formed by surface seepages. Skimming was the normal method of collection, and a broad, knife-edge board was used. "Directly after the harvest," a Pennsylvania historian reported in 1724, "the Indians will put their prize in wooden casings. When it has been heated and fetched to a liquid state, it is stored in stone or clay vessels."
Almost every tribe observed the custom of "peace trails" and "war trails." Along the peace trails were common necessities, such as salt deposits, oil springs and game. A party of Indians using the peace trail could traverse hostile territory to obtain supplies without fear of attack. Early explorers learned of this convention and thereafter stuck to the peace trails whenever possible. In this way, they soon discovered oil and its common uses, such as medicine for themselves and their animals, and they, of course, treasured it as a lubricant for the axles of wagons and carriages.
When the land became more settled, the pioneers developed the custom of laying blankets on the ground wherever petroleum appeared and then wringing it out of the cloth. The quantity gained was small, and peddlers were able to hawk it at a high price, calling it "Seneca Oil" or "Indian Oil." Settlers, like their Indian neighbors, applied oil to the body as a cure for rheumatism, but a handful of strong-stomached trappers went a step further and took it internally. In the latter seventeenth century, each pioneer used about a pint of oil a year, Indians much more.
The first truly American word for oil, atouronton, meant "free in giving," or "abundant." Now, centuries later, the term retains a surprising currency. Its meaning aptly describes petroleum's abundant applications.