Gilsonite was discovered in the 1860s. By 1888 Samuel H. Gilson had started a company to mine the substance, but soon discovered the vein was on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. Under great political pressure Congress removed some 7,000 acres (28 km2) from the reservation on May 24, 1888 to allow mining to proceed legally. Gilsonite mining became the first large commercial enterprise in the Uintah Basin, causing most of its early population growth.
Mining gilsonite during World War II was manual, using a six-pound pick, then shoveling the ore into 200 pound sacks, which were sewn by hand. In 1949 at the Parriette Gilsonite mine near Myton, Utah, Reed Smoot McConkie set the world record for ore mined by hand. Using his pick and shovel, he mined 175 bags of ore in eight hours, 950 bags in a six-day week, 1925 bags in a month and 15,000 bags in one year.
Gilsonite-brand uintahite’s earliest applications included paints for buggies and emulsions for beer-vat lining. It was used by Ford Motor Company as a principal component of the japan black lacquer used on most of the Ford Model T cars.