By the early 1920s, one would have thought that outright acts of violence against American Indians had diminished to almost nothing, even though in other ways their lives were less than ideal. Osage Indians in Oklahoma and Texas had grown wealthy by this time because of oil and mineral rights they had negotiated to retain when their reservation was divided up among various Osage families. But as David Grann shows in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), there was more to the story. A series of deaths among Osage tribe members in Osage County, OK, people who held the rights to plots of land that produced oil, raised suspicions that someone was causing these deaths. The Federal government in 1921 had passed a law that required many Osage landholders to have a white guardian assist them with management of their income from oil. In many cases the guardian had authority to review, approve, or disapprove purchases made with oil money. If the landowner should die, it became easy for the guardian to gain rights to the land (“headrights”). As suspicions grew, people who began to investigate the murders themselves often were murdered. Ultimately, a wealthy landowner named William Hale, an upstanding white member of the community who had previously presented himself as a friend to the Osage, was found responsible for organizing the murders. Widespread corruption among local town officials and racism among just about every white resident of the area enabled his crimes. And, as Grann demonstrates, Hale was not the only individual masterminding the murders of Osage Indians. At least 60 Osage tribe members were killed.
One of the saddest aspects of the story is how Hale got one of his followers, Ernest Burkhardt, to marry an Indian woman, Mollie Kyle, whose family held a large plot of land that brought in significant income from oil. By killing various members of her family, Hale meant to acquire her money and land. Mollie’s own husband even planted a bomb in the house of one of her sisters. The blast killed the sister and two others. Mollie was supposed to be staying at her sister’s house the night of the explosion, but she changed her plans. At the time of his arrest, Eckhardt was trying to poison Mollie. Grann uses Mollie as one of the central characters of his book.
Recognizing the inability or unwillingness of local authorities to do anything about the murders, the Osage tribe sought the assistance of a law enforcement branch of the federal government called the “Division of Investigation.” With J. Edgar Hoover as director, agents for the DOI investigated the Osage Murders for several years and determined that Hale and a group of his employees were responsible. Hale and several associates were arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison, though they served only a few years before being pardoned. The DOI was an immediate predecessor to the FBI, and its role in solving the Osage murders was a major demonstration of the need for such an agency within the government.
This book is a terrible indictment of the individuals and of the prevailing cultural and racial prejudices that allowed these murders to happen.