Oil remains one of the country's most controversial and essential commodities, no doubt in part due to the lengths early Americans went to get it.

Times and technology have changed, but the high price and risk of mining fossil fuels has not. Most notably, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico became the largest in the country's history, with oil still washing ashore as recently as last month, in part due to Hurricane Isaac.

So, too, does the hope of making a fortune in oil remain. Thousands have flocked to oil boomtowns in North and South Dakota, and elsewhere, this year with the hope of making a fortune working on oil rigs.

Long before the days of offshore drilling, fracking or importing, these photos from the early days of America's oil fields show both the sacrifices and the optimism typical of the young Americans who travelled west in search of black gold.

Check out these photos from the early days of the U.S. oil industry:

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  • Crew of Russell Petroleum No. 2 well, c. 1920.

  • This camp likely replaced the earlier Vernette location. Office, recreation building, and work shops are near center of picture; houses and derricks are in background. Pepper trees are alongside houses. From the collection of Frederic Chandler Ripley, Jr.

  • Wardman Wells fire with General Gasoline in the foreground.

  • Mohawk Petroleum Oil Fire, 1924.

  • One example of the wide range of Kern County Land Company's holdings, which extended outside of California

  • Pulling over an old wooden oil derrick, with other wooden derricks in background; Kern River oil field

(Hat tip: the Daily Mail)

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