From 1910 until almost 1930, a parasitic evil had Native Americans from Osage County, Oklahoma in a chokehold. Scores of murders were committed, millions of dollars stolen, and human rights were ignored.
Those who investigated on behalf of law enforcement were often brutally executed. It was a time locals called “The Reign of Terror.”
Official casualty counts run from 24 to 60 dead — but recent research suggests that those numbers were understated. Hundreds may have been killed.
Until recently, these heinous events have been forgotten outside the county. It wasn’t until 1994, when former Washington Post editor, Dennis McAuliffe, Jr., the grandson of one of the victims, wrote The Deaths of Sybil Bolton, that national attention was drawn.
David Grann’s bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon, published in 2017, further revived interest.
Covid-19 permitting, Martin Scorsese, along with his acting troupe of Leo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, is set to begin filming Grann’s work soon. The movie, scripted by Academy Award winner Eric Roth, will feature many of the actual locations where the atrocities occurred.
It’s expected that a film from a prestige director like Scorsese will underscore what has been reduced to an overlooked, historical footnote.
The story of the carnage in Osage originates in the latter half of the 19th century. Native Americans had been uprooted from their lands for years: over 100 million acres were lost in these moves.
In 1870, the Osage tribal leaders purchased “Indian Territory” in what ultimately became the northern section of Oklahoma — at 73 cents an acre, it was one of the best real estate bargains in history.
As Grann wrote, the decision to buy the land was based on the rocky and infertile quality of the soil. White farmers would not be interested in homesteading such soil, so the Native Americans would be left alone. A few thousand Osage settled there, but little did they know under that infertile, rugged ground lay vast oil deposits.
Under the Act of June 28, 1906, each registered Osage was allotted 657 acres, giving them so-called “headrights” — a share in the minerals in the land. These headrights, upon the death of the owner, could be passed to the immediate heirs. The heirs did not have be Native Americans, a wrinkle which would later prove to be fatal.
When the oil boom hit, men like J. Paul Getty, Bill Skelly, and Harry Sinclair turned up in Osage County for oil auctions. The events were held outside under the “million dollar elm tree” in the city of Pawhuska.
The auctions were dramatic theater. Grann quoted Getty as saying: “It was not unusual for a penniless wildcatter, down to his last bit …to bring in a well that made him a rich man…fortunes were being made — and lost — daily.”
Soon the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people on the planet. In one year, the tribe was paid 30 million dollars for oil leases.
The government, reflecting attitudes of the times, assigned guardians to the Osage, supervising how money was spent. A senior Osage, worth a fortune, would have to receive permission from the guardian to receive medical treatment. The guardian system opened the door for massive larceny.
The plotting then moved from graft to outright murder – “wild west” lawlessness was not uncommon.
Unscrupulous men and women who did not belong to the tribe would marry unsuspecting Osage Native Americans to obtain an inheritance. The inheritance could be fast-tracked — poison was a preferred technique.
There were countless schemes that involved murder: bogus heirs turning up to demand headrights, false insurance claims and extortion–the full panoply of criminal enterprise.
Grann called it a “culture of killing.”
The case of Mollie Burkhart finally unmasked the iniquitous ventures. Burkhart’s three sisters, brother-in-law, mother and first husband were all killed in pursuit of the family oil fortune. This spree was the breaking point. The Osage Tribal Council sent a formal resolution to the Department of Justice demanding action.
A youthful J. Edgar Hoover was the deputy director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI). He took on the matter with zeal. Former Texas Ranger Tom White was dispatched to look into the 24 known murders that had taken place in Osage County.
Against significant push-back, White ingeniously cracked the Burkhart case — three perpetrators were sentenced to jail.
White’s stellar work did not begin to solve the myriad of other murders, nor did it immediately stem crime in the county, but it was the first significant dent in the nefarious conspiracies.
McAuliffe recapped this way: “In a mystery, the guy always gets his man, and there’s always justice, and everybody’s happy. Well, the strings in real life weren’t tied. And nobody was happy except for the bad guys who walked away with the Osage millions.”
The books by McAuliffe and Grann are available on Amazon and abe.com, and both are well worth the read. Killers of the Flower Moon won an Edgar Award and was a National Book Award finalist.
A note on the Flower Moon title: every April, Osage County is blanketed by beautiful small flowers, which are choked off when larger plants overgrow them. The book title is a metaphor for what happened to the Osage Native Americans when exploiters arrived later.