Oil wealth, greed, prejudice fueled murders of Osage Indians

The Associated Press
This book cover image released by Doubleday shows, "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," by David Grann. (Doubleday via AP)

"Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI" (Doubleday), by David Grann

The FBI burnished its reputation by gunning down Depression-era gangster John Dillinger and bringing to justice the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh's baby. However, a more challenging but long forgotten investigation a decade earlier gave the fledgling agency its first major success.

At least two dozen and perhaps as many as several hundred Osage Indians were murdered during what became known as a yearslong "Reign of Terror." The shocking episode that unfolded on the high-grass prairie during the 1920s was fueled by oil wealth, greed and prejudice.

Like so many other Native Americans, the Osage were driven from their ancestral lands as settlers moved into the West. The tribe ended up on barren and seemingly worthless reservation lands in northeast Oklahoma. But when huge oil deposits were discovered there, it appeared that the tribe had finally hit the jackpot.

Osage whose names were on the tribal rolls received "headrights" that entitled them to a share of the income from oil leases and royalties. The newfound wealth allowed them to build mansions, drive luxury cars and send children to posh boarding schools, breeding resentment from jealous whites and giving rise to a growing string of unsolved killings.

"The world's richest people per capita were becoming the world's most murdered," writes David Grann in "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," his riveting account of the killings that first came to light in May 1921 when the body of an Osage woman who had gone missing was found by squirrel hunters in a ravine. The slain body of another member of the tribe was found at roughly the same time.

The body count kept growing. Some of the dead were shot, others had drunk moonshine whiskey spiked with poison and two died when their killer set off an explosion at their home. White authorities seemed indifferent about the murders, prompting members of the tribe to hire private detectives to try to crack the case. But the chilling conspiracies designed to wrest the oil headrights from the victims came to light only after J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the FBI, got involved in the case.

The hero of the saga is Tom White, a larger-than-life former Texas Ranger who deployed a network of undercover agents to help expose corrupt guardianships that allowed greedy whites to swindle the Osage out of their headrights. At the center of the conspiracy was the politically powerful William Hale, a one-time cowboy, part-time lawman and self-styled preacher, known to all as the "King of the Osage Hills."

White sought justice for the tribe at a time when rampant prejudice made potential witnesses reluctant to implicate fellow whites in crimes against Indians; bribery, perjury and jury tampering were commonplace.

As a prominent member of the tribe put it when Hale went to trial: "It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals."

Research by Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, sheds new light on the murders, including archival evidence implicating a bank president. The author also suggests that the Reign of Terror went on far longer than initially thought, beginning as early as 1918 and continuing for years after Hale's arrest in 1925.

Readers with a taste for true-crime narratives would be hard-pressed to find one more gripping than this unraveling of a mystery that once captivated the nation but is now barely remembered. History buffs with an interest in the settlement of the West and the treatment of its indigenous populations will find even more to chew on.