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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Busting a Myth about Dinosaurs: Does Oil Come from Dinosaurs?

As a paleontologist, I have found that there are a few misconceptions about dinosaurs. Some of them have gone by the wayside when the research has been able to penetrate the media bombardment we face every day, while others have persisted for decades for a variety of reasons. One of these seemingly undying myths is the idea that oil comes from dinosaurs. This is an interesting idea that I believe stems from a pop culture phenomenon nearly 100 years old.

Most people have a basic understanding that oil comes from dead plants/animals/organic matter. However the misconception comes when thinking about which animals and plant remains helped create that oil. I believe a great deal of this misunderstanding comes from the Sinclair Oil symbol—a small, green, sauropod dinosaur named “Dino”. The reason for this symbol has nothing to do with where the oil is coming from, but rather has a more historical story.

Sinclair Oil mascot

Dino, the Sinclair Oil mascot trademarked in 1932, was practically ubiquitous across the United States after WWII.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dinosaurs were big business. Museums across the eastern United States were scrambling to get the “best” skeleton and out-do other museums. They all wanted the biggest, most complete, fiercest, etc. This was the time of the infamous dinosaur wars. One of the prominent paleontologists at this time was Barnum Brown. He was the discoverer of Tyrannosaurus rex in 1902 (Osborn, 1905) and was a prolific fossil hunter. Some say he was the greatest dinosaur fossil collector ever. In the early 1900s, Brown had a relationship with the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation. He assisted in writing their promotional pamphlets and designing stamps in exchange for monetary support of his dinosaur collecting expeditions (Mitchell, 1998).

The Sinclair Dinosaur Book

Images of Sinclair’s promotional and educational booklets handed out in the 1930s (Spence, 1966).

“To give better academic stature to its promotions, Sinclair financed for several years the dinosaur fossil search expeditions of Dr. Barnum Brown, then curator of fossil reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History,” (Spence, 1966).

Barnum Brown by airplane

Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History, ready to depart on a bone hunting expedition in 1934 (Spence, 1966).

To capitalize on the popularity of dinosaurs, “Dino” was created as a marketing tool aimed at getting customers to believe that better oil came from older rocks. One of their marketing signs claimed it was “mellowed 80 million years” (Spence, 1966). The public equated Dino with power, endurance, and stamina (Spence, 1966). I’m sure those were qualities that Sinclair was happy to be branded with. Although the pamphlets and stamp books made reference to how oil was formed even before the dinosaurs existed, it seems the association of Dino and oil was too difficult to separate.

Graphic depicting how oil is formed

Graphic depicting how oil is formed (Chernicoff, 1995).

How oil actually forms:
When plants and animals living in the world’s oceans die, they sink to the ocean floor where their remains are eventually buried by sediment. Over time, as more of this organic matter is accumulated and buried deeper and deeper, it begins to change. Once certain pressures and temperatures are reached underground, the organic material changes into a substance called kerogen. As kerogen is buried even deeper, the increasing temperature and pressure transform it into hydrocarbons – the main constituents of crude oil and gas . The hydrocarbons will migrate through the pore spaces in rocks and accumulate in natural traps and pool together. It is these traps and pools that oil companies are searching for when they drill oil wells. It was this same process that occurred in North Dakota and formed the Bakken crude being drilled today (Nordeng, 2014).


Chernicoff, S., 1995, Geology, Worth Publishers, Inc., 593 pp.
Mitchell, W. J. T., 1998, The last dinosaur book, The University of Chicago Press, 321 pp.
Nordeng, S. H., 2014, Building the science for advancing oil and gas exploration and development in the Williston Basin: Geo News, v. 41, no. 1, p. 14-18.
Osborn, H. F., 1905, Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs: American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin 21, p. 259-265.
Spence, H., 1966, A Great Name in Oil, Sinclair Through Fifty Years, F. W. Dodge Co. / McGraw Hill Inc., 104 pp.

New Contemporary Collection Highlights Overseas Military Intelligence

Kurt's dress uniform

US Army Sergeant First Class Kurt Peterson’s dress uniform.

There are times that the State Historical Society receives donations that have a wealth of history and information. These are the best kinds of donations, because they make interpretation and research easier and more valuable. One such recent donation is from Kurt Peterson. Kurt, raised in Bismarck, joined the US Army in 1980. During his unusual career path, he was in military intelligence, worked as a Russian linguist, served in the Gulf War, and was an interpreter and inspector for Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) treaties. These are some highlights from Kurt’s global adventures and the related objects he recently donated.

The Berlin Wall

In January 1990, while stationed at Augsburg, Germany, Kurt and a friend set off to Berlin to see the crumbling Berlin Wall, which had separated communist East Germany from West Berlin for 28 years. They parked near the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag and found some Berliners hammering on the wall. Kurt and his friend borrowed a bolt-cutting tool and cut pieces of the wall’s rebar. Then they borrowed the hammer and chisel and removed small painted pieces of the concrete wall.

Piece of the Berlin wall's painted concrete and rebar

Piece of the Berlin wall’s painted concrete and rebar.

Diplomatic Courier Duty

In 1972, the US State Department signed an agreement allowing the Soviets to have control over design and construction of the US Embassy in Moscow. Ground broke for the building in 1979. After two years of construction a team of security specialists discovered that the Soviets had integrated eavesdropping devices into the infrastructure of the Embassy. By 1987, the US Government decided to refurbish the existing structure using materials shipped in from Helsinki, Finland. Kurt applied for courier duty with the State Department . After a week’s training in April 1990, he flew to Finland. He completed 10 trips from Helsinki to Moscow, about 750 miles, and traffic hit top speeds of 40-45 miles per hour. During each trip, a wire with the lead seal was placed on the latch closing the truck and only opened after the truck arrived in Moscow to unload its contents. This was to ensure no one tampered with the building supplies en route to Moscow.

Kurt's diplomatic passport and two customs seals

Kurt Peterson’s diplomatic passport and two customs seals used to secure supply trucks traveling from Helsinki to Moscow. He kept these seals after the trucks were opened in Moscow.

Gulf War

As a Russian linguist, Kurt never thought he would be deployed to Saudi Arabia.I In 1991, however, he worked with the Kuwaiti Army listening to Iraqi radio communications to determine their location.

US flag with the following written on it - To the people whom they belong to this flag and doing all their best to free our country Kuwait, we are really proud to work with you hand in hand as a family. 1-28-91. Mohammad Dashti

Presentation flag given to Kurt by one of the Kuwaiti military personnel.

Kurt with three other American soldiers and two Kuwaiti military members

Group of four American and two Kuwaiti military members. Kurt is in the middle.

Inspections

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed on July 31, 1991, and entered into force at the end of 1994. START was the first treaty to call for reduction to the strategic nuclear missiles of the United States and Soviet Union. Kurt became a START inspector/interpreter for US inspection teams deployed to the former Soviet Union. He inspected treaty-related facilities and equipment and translated oral and written communication in Russian and English between diplomatic representatives. He also performed escort duties for the former Soviet Union inspection teams at US facilities.

Map of Russia with inspections sites Kurt visited

Map of Russia with all of the inspections sites Kurt visited circled. Click map to see larger.

Kurt's US and Russian identification badges

US and Russian identification badges.

We’re always seeking interesting objects related to North Dakota. Do you have a collection with a North Dakota connection to consider preserving at the State Historical Society of North Dakota? Please view our Collection Priority List and fill out a Potential Acquisition Questionnaire.