The following is a guest post by Arlene Balkansky. Arlene recently retired from being a librarian in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, and was a regular writer for Headlines and Heroes.
The late 19th century was a time of great change and difficulty for Native Americans navigating challenges to their livelihoods and culture as white Americans continued to expand westward and discover valuable resources. The Osage Nation, in particular, went from extreme poverty in the 1870s to enormous wealth by the mid-1910s, leading to further exploitation by whites and attempts to take control of that wealth by any means possible, including murder. Often newspapers from the time, replete with racist stereotypes, singled out the Osage due to their wealth as objects of curiosity, envy and ridicule, while sensationalizing the crimes committed against them, including a series of murders in the early 1920s that came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.”
The Osages, like other Indian tribes, withstood repeated removals from their lands until they sold their land in Kansas to the federal government and moved to rocky, hilly land purchased from the Cherokee in Indian Territory, present day northern Oklahoma, for their reservation.
The move south from the rectangular swath in southern Kansas to the smaller triangle in northern Indian Territory was difficult and the new land inhospitable, but Osage historian John Joseph Mathews quoted chief Wah-Tiah-Kah promoting the choice, “…my people will be happy in this land…There are many hills here…white man does not like country where there are hills, and he will not come…This country is not good for things which white man puts in ground…” (Wah’kon-tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road, p. 33-34).
By the late 1890s, profits from grazing and oil leases began to earn the Osage the reputation of being the “Richest People on Earth.” While the description may have been premature, if meant only monetarily, David D. Leahy’s lengthy article, based on his interviews with Osage leadership, was a rare respectful look at the Osage.
Nellie Johnstone #1 started gushing on April 15, 1897, after a torpedo dropped down the shaft set off a nitroglycerin charge. This well drilled by Cudahy Oil Co. in the town of Bartlesville, Indian Territory, marked the beginning of Oklahoma’s commercial oil industry. Bartlesville was in the Cherokee Nation, very near the border with the Osage.
The Osage became more prosperous. The tribe was not subject to the land allotment provisions of the Dawes Act of 1887 because the Osage had bought the land in Indian Territory with the proceeds of the sale of the tribal Kansas lands to the federal government. Allotment meant that the tribal lands were broken up into individually owned plots, which could then be sold, spelling the end of tribal communal life and further opening up the land to white settlement. With the upcoming statehood of Oklahoma, Chief James Bigheart and other Osage leaders could no longer resist allotment, but as the last tribe to be allotted, they were in a good enough bargaining position to have larger individual surface land allotments extended to every recognized member, not only heads of households, and to insert a provision that reserved Osage tribal control of “oil, gas, coal, or other minerals” below the surface for 25 years. Osage members were listed on the tribal roll in order to receive their headright, their equal portion of the profit from minerals, which could be inherited, but not bought or sold.
As Osage wealth increased, the press coverage cascaded and white resentment appeared to grow, emanating from all parts of the country, including New York, Birmingham, and Salt Lake City. There are about 174 articles just in Chronicling America* referencing “Lo, the Rich Indian,” playing on poet Alexander Pope’s “Lo, the Poor Indian,” which is in itself ironic. At least 30 of the articles focus directly on the Osage.
Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. The Guthrie Leader touted that the new state was only “opened to settlement 18 years ago,” which was true, if only considering non-native settlement.
The young state’s oil economy boomed. Oil, already a valuable component of American industrialization, took on heightened importance during World War I.
Osage wealth continued to grow. The public auction of Osage oil and natural gas leases began in 1912. Colonel Ellsworth Walters became famous as the official auctioneer of the Osage Nation beginning in 1916. An auction in 1924 brought in $4,000,000. In April 1920, The Bismarck Tribune calculated that each Osage, including children, would receive about $10,000 that year. The equivalent of $138,000 in today’s dollars.
Those figures could certainly make the Osage the “World’s Richest People” and support extravagant lifestyles. One aspect not taken into consideration is that many Osages, particularly full-blooded ones, did not control their own money, but were placed under white guardianships, which were rife with graft.
Then the murders began. The bodies of two Osages, Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn, were discovered within about 40 miles of each other in Osage County on May 28, 1921.
Photos of Charles Whitehorn and Anna Brown from “Death Marches on the Osage Trail,” The Daily Oklahoman, January 17, 1926, Section D, p 1. Newspaper Clipping [Photograph 2012.201.OVZ001.3441] at https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc1701078/ from The Gateway to Oklahoma History, Oklahoma Historical Society.
Within two months, Anna Brown’s murder seemed solved with the confession of Asa Thomas, imprisoned in Kansas for forgery. He implicated Anna Brown’s ex-husband, Oda Brown, in a murder-for-hire scheme. Brown was arrested, but it turned out Thomas’ confession was false. Brown’s alibi held up and he was released.
The following month, Anna Brown’s death was included in a syndicated sensationalized article about Osage women: “World’s Most Independent Women, Osage Indians, Are Pursued by Divorce, Crime.” The coverage of Brown was the bleakest: “Nor is divorce the worst evil. The body of Anna Brown, one of the richest of the Osage girls, was found by the roadside a few months ago. It was plain she had been murdered, but by whom is a mystery.”
Other suspicious Osage deaths followed, mainly suspected poisonings, including Lizzie Q, Anna’s mother. Some Osage asked Barney McBride, a white oilman whom they trusted to go to Washington, DC, to try to enlist federal help in investigating the Osage murders. McBride was found murdered on August 10, 1922, the day after he arrived, reportedly stabbed some 30 times. In early February 1923, Osage Henry Roan was murdered. He was found dead in his car, shot.
A month later, as one of Anna Brown’s surviving sisters, Rita Smith, her husband William, and a 19-year-old servant, Nettie Brookshire, slept, a massive explosion destroyed the Smith’s home, killing the two women and critically injuring William, who died four days later.
Two more victims were Attorney W. W. Vaughan who was murdered and thrown off a train after meeting with a poisoned, dying George Bigheart, nephew of the famous Osage Chief James Bigheart. Both were murdered in July 1923.
Tom White, an agent with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (the BOI later became the FBI) took over the case in 1925 and brought four of the murderers to justice through trials beginning in 1926. He and his team of agents proved that some of the “Reign of Terror” over the Osage revolved around the murder of Anna Brown and her family, with her sister, Mollie Burkhart, becoming the sole direct Osage survivor and likely next victim, as her poisoning had already begun. The murderers conspired to inherit headrights of valuable shares in the Osage underground mineral holdings.
Spoiler Alert: Stop here if you prefer to learn about the murderers and their deadly conspiracies through David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI or through the upcoming film version directed by Martin Scorsese.
Continue reading to see photos and coverage of the four perpetrators eventually convicted.
Ernest Burkhart was Mollie’s husband, a particularly painful turn in the case.
William Hale was Ernest Burkhart’s uncle. He was a successful rancher, considered a trusted friend of the Osage for many years, and often referred to as the “King of the Osage Hills.” He was the leader of the conspiracy.
And finally, here’s a simplified view of the FBI role with no mention of Tom White or the other agents, just as J. Edgar Hoover preferred.
It’s difficult to estimate the number of people murdered during the “Reign of Terror,” but it appears to be dozens with some victims having no known association with the four convicted murderers.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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