true crime

After Finding Oil, These Native Americans Were Murdered

The Osage people became famously rich with oil money in the 1920s. Then they started turning up dead.
April 18, 2017, 4:00am
Photo courtesy Doubleday/Penguin Random House

In the early 1800s, the Osage Nation was one of the most prominent Native American cultures in the United States. The tribe had settlements that dotted the Midwest landscape, and President Thomas Jefferson referred to them as a "great nation," even hosting a delegation of Osage chiefs (along with many others) to whom he promised friendship and alliance.

You probably know what happened next. Within a few years, the Osage were forced off their land as part of what amounted to a national campaign of brutal colonialism.

By the 1870s, suffering under the weight of disease and starvation, the Osage were forced to relocate to what would later become part of the state of Oklahoma. The new land was hilly, rocky, and no good for farming. But the Osage eventually caught a break when it was discovered that their new reservation was situated atop some of the most generous oil deposits in the United States, deposits for which they could charge hefty fees.

It was an incredible turn of fortune that sparked a national media sensation—at least until Osage started turning up dead, one by one.

In his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, out today, David Grann, a New Yorker staff writer, tells the story of how the Osage became one of the wealthiest communities in the world. They made headlines as "red millionaires" who rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions on their land (complete with white servants), and sent their kids to European boarding schools. But it didn't take long for a backlash to follow from White America, as at least two dozen Osage were murdered in a conspiracy that drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. VICE called up Grann to talk about this often-overlooked chapter in America's lengthy history of terrorizing Native peoples and how the feds finally got involved.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: How did you first find out about this story, which doesn't exactly fit the traditional narrative of Americans colonizing Native American land?
David Grann: I heard about the story for the first time from a historian back in 2011. I was quite shocked at the fact that I was ignorant of these [events] and that it was not something I'd read about in school. I traveled out to the Osage Nation, and I visited their museum, and on the wall, there was this large panoramic photograph that showed members of the Osage with white settlers. It looked like a very innocent-looking photograph. It was taken in 1923, but a piece of the photo was missing, and I asked the museum director why, and she said, well, "The devil was standing right there." She went down to the basement and brought up an image of the missing panel, and it showed one of the murderers who was the mastermind of the killings of the Osage during the 1920s. The book really grew out of trying to understand who that devil was and the anguishing history it embodied.

It led me to one of the most sinister and really mysterious crimes in American history. It became close to a five-year process of researching the book, and that involved a lot of archival work. It involved writing to every institution I could think of that was connected to the case, including sheriff's offices, courthouses, prisons where inmates who were involved might have been. It involved Freedom of Information Acts to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to see what historical material existed. And it also involved tracking down the descendants of the murderers and the victims and finding as many as I could to record their oral histories and to see what documents they might have.

Can you talk a bit about what it was like for the Osage Nation to come into this sudden wealth after so much hardship—and how their prosperity transfixed the people around them?
In 1923 alone, the Osage collectively received what would be worth today more than $400 million. They were leasing the land, and it's also coming in on royalties from the oil being taken out of the land. They lived in terra-cotta mansions, had servants—many of whom were white—and while one American might own a car each, the Osage owned 11 cars. And to reporters, because these images kind of belied the stereotypes that can be traced back to that earliest contact between whites and Native Americans, they would tantalize readers with stories about the Osage wealth, even before the murders. It drew all sorts of people into the area.

One of the things that happened—which was outrageous—was the federal government created a guardianship system. Because of prejudice, they appointed white guardians to oversee Osage wealth under the prejudiced assumption that somehow the Osage were not able to handle their own money, which was absurd. This system was not only racist—it also became a system of graft because the white guardian was stealing the money. These outlaws came in hoping to try and get part of the Osage money. One Osage chief testified before Congress saying that essentially, "You [put] us down here in the corner of the country in the backwoods, rocky part of the country, and now that it's worth millions of dollars everybody wants to get in here and get a piece of it."

You decided to tell this story in large part via the character of a woman named Mollie Burkhart. Why her?
I told [it through her] because often when the story of the case is told, the targets and the victims, the Osage's story was often overlooked. When you'd read about the case, Mollie Burkhart would be just a descendent, her family members' names little more than statistics. I thought it was really important to begin with her story. I thought it was really important to do my best to record the Osage perspective.

Mollie Burkhart is a remarkable woman. She is in many ways a transitional figure in that she was born in a lodge in the 1880s, speaking Osage, wearing traditional dress, and within a year forced to attend a boarding school. Uprooted from her life, within a span of about three decades, she's living in a mansion, and she's married to a white man. She has white servants, and she's straddling not only two centuries, but two civilizations as her family becomes one of the prime targets of the murder conspiracy. Her sister, Anna Brown, disappears in May 1921, and about a week later, she's found shot in the back of the head in a ravine.

Her mother soon dies, killed by a suspected poisoning, and not long after that there's a great explosion one night, and Mollie feels her house shake. She goes to the window, and she looks out where her sister's house is, and all she can see is this great orange ball rising in the sky, and it turned out that somebody had planted a bomb under her sister's house, killing her. Mollie herself becomes a target, but she shows enormous courage in that she crusades for justice at a time when the white power structure and the white authorities discount her because she's a woman and because she's Osage. She's finally poisoned, but survives and ultimately some federal investigators from the bureau come in.

That's when ex-Texas Ranger Tom White got involved, right? Why did he and J. Edgar Hoover pursue the case so strongly?
Initially, they bungle the case badly. There was an enormous amount of corruption in law enforcement at the time, which is important to understand. So many of the local authorities were bought off or were complicit in the crime, so nothing was being done—or they were just deeply prejudiced, and because the victims were Native Americans, they ignored the crime. Eventually these agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation come in, and it becomes one of J. Edgar Hoover's first major homicide cases.

[He] turns the case over to a frontier lawman named Tom White, who put together this undercover operation and that helps catch some of the killers. One of the undercover operatives goes in and pretends to be a cattleman; another goes in as an insurance salesman. Another member of the team was probably the only American Indian agent in the bureau at the time—he also goes in undercover, and they're able to capture some of the ring leaders, the people who were directly targeting Molly. But one of the things I also try to show in the book is that there was a much more deeper, darker conspiracy that the bureau never exposed.

Hoover was able to use the case to kind of mythologize the role of the bureau to justify the creation of a more powerful national police force and cement his reputation. He had been very insecure in power, because he was new in his career, and so he really used it as a launching pad to help build his bureaucratic empire.

Why do you think this story has been buried in history? And what legacy of the Osage oil money—and the murders it inspired—remain?
The Osage deeply remember the story—it's still living history for them. When you meet the descendants, you realize that immediately. But I think for much of the country it's been neglected because I think stories of Native Americans don't become part of the broader narrative. This is a story that's a microcosm of the clash of the two civilizations—the brutal first contact, that kind of original first sin, played out in the heart of this country in the 1920s. It's an essential story to understand the formation of our country and understand the formation of law enforcement and understand why it's so important we become a country of laws where the scales of justice are not tipped one way or the other by the powerful or tipped against a certain group of people because of the color of their skin or their culture.

Unfortunately, countless millions of dollars were swindled and never recovered, and over time, the oil was depleted. By the 1940s, the Osage were no longer receiving these vast sums of money, but they are a remarkable resilient nation, and you get that sense from meeting with them. They've endured and built their own democratic institutions. They've found various sources of other income. As one Osage told me, they were victims of these crimes, but they shouldn't be seen as just victims. They have built this remarkable nation and have about 20,000 members today.

Learn more about David Grann's new book here.

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