Oil wealth, greed and prejudice fueled the Osage Indian killings

“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 the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s baby to justice. A decade earlier, however, a more challenging but neglected investigation gave the fledgling agency its first big break.

At least two dozen and perhaps several hundred Osage Indians were killed during what became known as a year-long “Reign of Terror.” The shocking episode that unfolded in the tall 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 when settlers moved west. The tribe ended up on barren and seemingly worthless reservation land in northeastern Oklahoma. But when massive oil deposits were discovered there, it seemed the tribe had finally hit the jackpot.

The Osage, whose names appeared on tribal lists, were given “property rights” that entitled them to a share of revenue from oil leases and royalties. The newfound wealth allowed them to build mansions, drive luxury cars and send their children to posh boarding schools, sparking resentment among jealous whites and leading to a growing string of unsolved murders.

“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 fascinating account of the murders that came out to light for the first time in May. 1921 when the body of a missing Osage woman was found by squirrel hunters in a ravine. The murdered body of another member of the tribe was found around the same time.

The body count continued to grow. Some of the dead were shot, others had drunk poisoned illegally distilled whiskey, and two died when their killer set off an explosion in their home. White authorities seemed indifferent to the murders, prompting members of the tribe to hire private detectives to try to solve the case. But the chilling conspiracies designed to wrest oil rights from the victims came to light only after the J. Edgar Hoover Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the FBI, became 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 the corrupt guardianships that allowed greedy whites to swindle the Osage out of their rights. At the center of the conspiracy was the politically powerful William Hale, a former cowboy, part-time lawman, and self-proclaimed 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 other whites in crimes against Indians; bribery, perjury, and jury tampering were common.

As one prominent member of the tribe said when Hale went to trial: “I have a question whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question they have to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder or just cruelty to animals.”

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

Readers who like true crime narratives will be hard pressed to find a more gripping than this unraveling of a mystery that once captivated the nation but is now barely remembered. History buffs interested in the colonization of the West and the treatment of its indigenous populations will find even more to chew on.