I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For the people of the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma oil gushing out of their land meant immense wealth; it also brought misery. At the height of the oil boom in 1923, the roughly 2,000 Osage people were being paid the equivalent of $400 million. Too bad about the murders.
Origins of the Osage
The first signs of Osage habitation were in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys in about 700 BCE. They were a hunter/gatherer society.
First contact with Europeans occurred in 1673 with French fur traders and explorers. That’s when the trouble started for the Osage.
In 1808, the U.S. government took their land and booted them off to a reservation in Southern Kansas. As settlers occupied more land, the Osage were moved again in 1870. This time they were put on stony ground in Northeast Oklahoma that appeared to be of no value to anyone.
Discovery of Oil
Not long after the Osage settled on their “worthless” property oil was found under their feet – a lot of oil.
The U.S. government held title to the land in trust for the Osage Nation. Under a system called “headright” each Native Person received a share of the oil wealth. Charles Red Corn (Osage News) notes the headright “also brought with it a 160-acre homestead within the reservation and 658 acres of surface land within the reservation.”
The deal negotiated by Chief Bigheart also stipulated that the land could not be bought by non-tribal members it could only be inherited by the deceased's legal heir, who might no necessarily be a full-blood Osage. The wealth from the oil would stay within the Osage tribe forever. So, anybody who wanted access to the oil had to buy leases from the tribe.
In 1907, a census counted 2,229 tribal members.
Drillers arrived in big numbers and more than 8,500 wells were pumping black gold on the reservation’s 1.4 million acres.
Osage Oil Wealth
Writer Gina Dimuro reports that “By 1923, the Osage were earning over $30 million dollars from leases and royalties a year, an amount equating to around $400 million dollars today.”
The money from the headright made the Osages the wealthiest people in the world at the time on a per capita basis. They lived in opulent houses and, according to Edna Ferber in her 1929 novel Cimarron, if they crashed one of their limousines they simply left it and bought another one.
The idea of American Indians being wealthy did not sit well with everyone. In 1932, Time magazine got huffy: “Osage Indians did not always ride in limousines, squat in blankets among Grand Rapids furniture and generally give a pathetically good imitation of nouveaux riches the world over.”
Of course, the riches of the Osage tribe attracted the worst elements of society. All sorts of grifters, swindlers, and cheats suddenly found northeastern Oklahoma to be an attractive place to live.
The Reign of Terror
The paternalism (racism is an ugly word) of the American government led Congress to insist that each member of the tribe should have a white guardian to manage their assets. Some of these supervisors were honest but many were crooks bent on diverting Osage money into their own pockets. Some white men tried the strategy of marrying Osage women in order to get their hands on the money.
A man called William K. Hale features prominently in the plans to steal Osage Indian money. He was a rancher, banker, and political manipulator from Texas who styled himself “King of the Osage Hills.”
Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, at his uncle’s urging, married Mollie Kyle, an Osage Indian. Then, in 1921, Mollie’s family started to die. Her sister Anna Brown took a bullet to the head. Another sister, Rita Smith, died when her house exploded. Also, Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q. Kyle succumbed to suspected poisoning.
With all the folks dying around her, Lizzie Kyle was in possession of several full headrights. With her own death, Lizzie’s fortune passed to Mollie and Ernest Burkhart and Mollie was already unwell from what was likely poisoning.
Local law enforcement was completely unable to investigate the murders and, besides, they weren’t going to break a sweat looking into the deaths of a few Indians.
Our complexions differ from yours, but our hearts are the same colour, and you ought to love us for we are the original and true Americans.
Osage Chief Tatschaga
Osage Murder Investigation
By early March 1923, the body count had reached two dozen and the Tribal Council asked Washington for help. They sent a friendly oilman, Barney McBride, to the capital. Within 24 hours he was dead having sustained 20 stab wounds. Then, an attorney working on behalf of the Osage was pushed from a moving train.
The newly formed U.S. Bureau of Investigation (what is today the Federal Bureau of Investigation) sent in a Texas Ranger, Tom White. He hired some undercover agents who started poking around the Osage Reservation and the names of Hale, Burkhart, and a few others kept cropping up.
By 1926, White had enough evidence to arrest Hale and Burkhart. Under interrogation, more minor characters turned state’s evidence and testified against the two principal conspirators.
Eventually, Hale and Burkhart were given sentences of life in prison. Hale was paroled in 1947. Burkhart was also paroled and given a full pardon by Oklahoma's Republican Governor Henry Bellman in 1965.
David Grann wrote about the tragedy of the Osage Indians in his 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon. In it he quotes a chief saying in 1928 “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father. There’ll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
Despite the chicanery, the U.S. government continued to manage the revenue from the Osage oil fields. In 2000, the Osage Nation sued the Department of the Interior claiming their assets had been poorly handled and their people cheated. The case was settled in 2011 with a payment to the Osages of $380 million and promises from the government to do a better job.
Maria Tallchief was the granddaughter of Osage Chief Bigheart. She became a world famous prima ballerina, dancing leading roles with some of the top ballet companies.
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters was a legendary auctioneer hired by the Osage people in 1912 to sell their oil leases. (He was named after the first Union officer to be killed during the Civil War). He carried out his auctions under a big elm tree in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Walters worked for $10 a day beneath what came to be called the Million-Dollar Elm. He was so accomplished at extracting the last penny out of bidders that the Osage Nation awarded him a medal.
- “Oil and Headrights Have Impacted Our Past, Present and Future.” Charles Red Corn, Osage News, September 16, 2015.
- “The Forgotten Murders of the Osage People for the Oil Beneath Their Land.” David Grann, PBS New Hour, February 15, 2018.
- “The Osage Reign Of Terror: How A Bigoted Conspiracy Against The Native Americans Led To The FBI’s First Case.” Gina Dimuro, Allthatsinteresting.com, January 17, 2019
- “Osage Murders.” Jon D. May, Oklahoma Historical Society, undated.
- “Killers of the Flower Moon.” David Grann, Doubleday, 2017.
- “The Marked Woman.” David Grann, New Yorker, March 1, 2017.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor