A wildcatter is a prospector who sinks exploratory oil wells in areas not known to have oil fields. The term can also be applied to a risky investor.
The word was coined in America and dates from the early oil industry in western Pennsylvania. Oil wells in unproven territory were called ‘wild-cat wells’ by 1871, and those who drilled them were called ‘wild-catters’ by 1876. For instance, the Titusville Herald noted in 1880:
“The discovery of the fluid in New York State was the signal for a general exodus of wildcatters from all parts of the oil country …”
Tradition says that the origin of the term in the petroleum industry came from Wildcat Hollow, now in Oil Creek State Park near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Wildcat Hollow was one of the many productive fields in the early oil era. The story goes that a speculator who risked his luck by drilling in this narrow valley shot a wildcat, had it stuffed and set it atop his derrick. The mounted cat gave its name to the hollow. Because the area was largely untested and some distance away from Oil Creek Flats, the term wildcatter was coined to describe a person who risked drilling in what might prove to be a dry area.
However, ‘wildcat’ was American slang for any risky business venture by 1838, long before the rise of the petroleum industry. An example was the ‘wildcat banking’ of the 1850s. Directors of wildcat banks in the Midwest were known as ‘wild-catters’ before the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.