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William Warren Orcutt (1869–1942) “The Dean of Petroleum Geology and My Grandfather”

M. A. Orcutt Henderson
Santa Paula Historical Society, Santa Paula, CA

My grandfather,WilliamWarren Orcutt, was born in Minnesota and came to Santa Paula, California, with his family in 1882. He attended local schools and went on to Stanford University where he graduated in the Pioneer Class of ’95 with a degree in Civil and Hydraulic Engineering. In 1899 he was hired by the Union Oil Company which was headquartered in Santa Paula. Shortly thereafter he sketched a detailed map of the observed and presumed geological formations of the Santa Maria Basin—the first such mapping in the industry. From this map, Union’s important Santa Maria fields were discovered, and the new town of “Orcutt” was named in his honor. He then was directed to organize and manage the company’s first geological department— another first.

In 1902 it was Orcutt who recognized that the blackened bones embedded in asphaltum at Rancho La Brea were more than cow bones, leading to the excavation of the La Brea Tar Pits. In his search for oil, he explored the Alaskan wilderness and the jungles of Mexico and South America, identifying promising oil and gas prospects. Closer to home, he was responsible for discovering such major fields as the Santa Fe, Dominguez, Richfield and Montebello.

During his career with Union he served on the executive board for 34 years, and at the time of his death in 1942, was the vice president of four departments. Today, my grandfather is still accorded the honorary title of “Dean of Petroleum Geology”.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90904©2001 AAPG Pacific Section Meeting, Universal City, California