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Harry Ford Sinclair

Sinclair Oil Company

Oil man.  1876-1956

Harry Ford Sinclair, described in 1907 as the richest man in Kansas, was born near Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1876. His family moved to Independence when he was a child. His parents wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps as a druggist and, indeed, he did graduate from the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy.

But Harry Sinclair wasn't cut out to be a small-town druggist. His two attempts in Independence and Coffeyville were far from successful. After the Independence store failed, Sinclair began selling lumber for the oil derricks in the booming southeast Kansas oilfields. He also started dealing in oil leases on the side. Sinclair seemed to have an uncanny ability to pick out oil lands that would become profitable. His land in northeast Oklahoma made him a millionaire before he was 30 years old. As each new strike was discovered, the price of oil would fluctuate wildly. Sinclair bought wells when production prices were low, and sold it when prices rose. In 1913 he moved from Independence to Tulsa, Oklahoma, taking many of his early associates with him in the oil company. In 1916 he began the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation. He rocked the industry by beginning to build a $350,000,000 company, the Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation, which would control all aspects of the petroleum production from exploring to retail sales. Sinclair built or bought pipelines, refineries, wells, and other oil firms. By World War I his was the largest independent oil company in the country.

The Teapot Dome Scandal in the 1920s tarnished Sinclair's reputation. A Sinclair subsidiary was awarded a federal contract to develop a naval petroleum reserve in Wyoming. It was charged that Sinclair obtained the contract because of large contribution to the 1920 Harding campaign. In 1924 the government sued to rescind the contract. The trial Court ruled that the contract was legally awarded, but no U.S. Supreme Court voided the lower Court's finding on a technicality. Sinclair was acquitted of criminal conspiracy to defraud, but not after he was convicted of obstructing justice because he had hired private detectives to shadow the jurors. During the investigation into the Teapot Dome, Sinclair appeared before twelve legislative investigating committees. On his attorneys' advice, he refused to answer ten questions about his campaign contributions. He was found to be in contempt of the U.S. Senate and was jailed for six months after the Supreme Court upheld the Senate's right to ask him the questions. In the District of Columbia house of detention, Sinclair was named prison pharmacist and practiced his original trade.

Described as "strongly built. . .tall, broad with an impressive head, dark hair, and two piercing, blue eyes," Sinclair was fond of horse racing and baseball. His horse ran at America's major tracks. He owned several minor-league baseball franchises, and was one of the founders of the Federal League.

In 1949 after 33 years of presiding over the Sinclair Oil Company, Harry Sinclair retired to California. He died in 1956. This Kansan rose from a failing, small-town pharmacist to one of the country's richest men.

Entry: Sinclair, Harry Ford

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2004

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.