Over several years in the 1920s, members of Osage Nation, a native American tribe in Oklahoma in south-central United States, were murdered. The Osage had recently become very rich after oil was found on their land.
The killings — of scores of Osage — led to the structuring of the FBI, then called the Bureau of Investigation. More fundamentally, they revealed the dark underbelly of America, the rapacious loot of the land and resources of the continent’s native peoples by white settlers.
Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon — based on David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name — tells the story of the so-called Reign of Terror of this period. The film opens in India on October 27.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the territory of the state of Louisiana from the French. This land was dominated by the Osage.
Grann writes that the Osage were compelled to give up their territory, move to Kansas, and eventually allocated a reservation (a land reserved for a tribe under a treaty) in northeastern Oklahoma.
The Osage were able to buy the land in Oklahoma through money received from selling the Kansas land. As part of the negotiations with the government about the terms of the allotment, the Osage tribe leaders said that the “oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands” are exclusively reserved for the Osage.
Oklahoma, and oil
This land that they moved to “was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States,” Grann writes. Each of the members on the Osage tribal roll “received a headright or a share in the tribe’s mineral trust”. These headrights could only be inherited, through family or marriage. The only way others could get to the oil was by paying the Osage for leases and royalties.
The deposits ended up propelling the Osage to a lot of wealth; In 1923, the tribe is said to have made more than $30 million and were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.
“Lo and behold!” the New York weekly Outlook had written at the time, “The Indian, instead of starving to death…enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.” Publications were occupied with the details of the “plutocratic Osage” and the “red millionaires, ” with their brick-and-terra-cotta mansions and chandeliers, with their diamond rings and fur coats and chauffeured cars.
A number of white settlers poured in for the oil and the Osage too began leasing out more and more land.
But the Osage were not entirely in control of the oil or their finances. There was a system of “financial guardians” mandated by law. A lot of the Osage people were deemed “incompetent” and assigned a white guardian.
In 1921, the Congress implemented even stricter legislation. “Guardians would not only continue to oversee their wards’ finances; under the new law, these Osage Indians with guardians were also ‘restricted, ‘ which meant that each of them could withdraw no more than a few thousand dollars annually from his or her trust fund,” Grann writes.
The book and the film are centred around the family of an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart. Mollie is married to Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo Dicaprio in the film), a white man. He is the nephew of William K Hale (Robert DeNiro), a rich and influential settler in the reservation.
In 1918, Mollie lost her sister Minnie to a “peculiar wasting illness”. Three years later, in May 1921, her other sister, Annie Brown, was found with a bullet in her head. A week before the incident, another Osage, Charles Whitehorn, disappeared.
Over the years, more Osage people, including members of Mollie’s people, were killed.
Investigations — through local forces and hired private detectives — began, but saw no movement.
The official death toll in the Osage territory between 1921-’25 rises to 24. Newspapers described this period as the “Osage reign of terror”.
The FBI enters
The Bureau of Investigation was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, but even until the 1920s, it “had only a few hundred agents and only a smattering of field offices,” Grann writes.
In December 1924, Herbert Hoover became the director of the bureau (before his presidential tenure) and was responsible for shaping it into a “monolithic force”.
An agent named Tom White was deployed to the Osage Country in 1925. He eventually found the most important thread in the killings of Mollie’s family members: with each successive death, headrights of the oil deposits were being directed to her.
By gathering evidence from multiple sources, White and his team trace the killings to Hale. Ernest was the first to confess, saying he had been “privy to all the mechanics of Hale’s plots.”
White could not connect all of the 24 murders to Hale, but he did find links to show Hale benefitted from two killings.
Eventually, the Osage were able to get a law passed, which barred anyone who was not at least half Osage from inheriting headrights from a member of the tribe.
Beyond the official death rate
Grann writes that many scholars and investigators have looked into and believe the “Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds”, citing the Authentic Osage Indian Roll Book to corroborate the number.
“Over the sixteen-year period from 1907 to 1923, 605 Osages died, averaging about 38 per year, an annual death rate of about 19 per 1,000.”
Grann also quoted Louis F Burns, a historian of the Osage who observed, “I don’t know of a single Osage family which didn’t lose at least one family member because of the head rights.”
In a bureau transcript of an interview with an informant that Grann quotes, an agent said, “There are so many of these murder cases. There are hundreds and hundreds.”