by David Grann
David Grann has brought to life a terrifying period in American history when, officially at least, 24 members of the Osage Tribe were murdered between 1921 and 1926. Although two men were arrested in 1926 and eventually convicted for one murder, there was no justice for the rest.
Grann’s meticulous journalism credibly suggests that the systematic killing of Osage tribe members for their allotments began much earlier and was appallingly widespread. The intervention of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the leadership of 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, was a keystone moment for the fledgling agency.
As spellbinding as a mystery novel, Grann’s story telling ranges from a panoramic slice of American history in danger of being forgotten to the heart-breaking personal stories of the victims and their families.
In one poignant scene, Grann stands with Margie Burkhart in an old cemetery near Gray Horse, OK, looking at the tombstones of her grandmother Mollie Burkhart, great-grandmother Lizzie, great-aunts Anna Brown and Rita Smith, great-uncle Bill Smith and Mollie Burkhart’s first husband, Henry Roan. All except Mollie Burkhart were murdered. Margie’s grandfather, Ernest Burkhart, admitted to being aware that murders were being committed. Had his son, James “Cowboy” Burkhart, not had an earache, Burkhart’s family would have been killed in the house explosion that killed his sister- and brother-in-law Rita and Bill Smith. Margie Burkhart might never have been born.
To understand, how this happened, Grann describes how the Osage tribe, driven from its lands in Kansas by settlers, purchased land in a rocky, apparently worthless section of northeastern Oklahoma. As the U.S. government forced other tribes into accepting a 160-acre allotment of land per tribal member and opening up the remainder of the reservation to general settlement, the Osage were able to resist because they owned their land.
Chief James Bigheart, who spoke seven languages including Sioux, French, English and Latin, was far-sighted in dealing with the bureaucrats of Washington, D.C. In 1904, he sent attorney John Palmer, a half-Sioux Indian who had been adopted by an Osage family as a child, to Washington, D.C., to keep close to events happening in Congress.
Bigheart understood that statehood was coming and some form of allotment system was inevitable. In his negotiations with the government, he managed to assure that land was only divided among members of the tribe, each receiving a 657-acre allotment; no land was made available to outside settlers. In addition, the agreement Bigheart negotiated included a section that reserved all oil, gas, coal and other minerals covered by the land for the tribe. The Osage had already observed oil seeps and prospectors like J. P. Getty, Frank Phillips, E. W. Marland and Bill Skelly searching for black gold.
Prospectors had to pay the Osage for leases and royalties to prospect and drill for oil. These were divided into quarterly checks for tribal members. Early on, these checks amounted to a few dollars, but as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds and then the thousands. In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million (equivalent today to $400 million). The Osage became the wealthiest people in the world per capital, buying houses, cars and hiring servants.
But as they became rich, they were the targets of racism, exploited by their neighbors and deprived of rights all other American citizens took for granted. The government required that they have financial guardians who virtually controlled access to the funds received as a member of the tribe. Grann writes of cases where guardians spent an Osage’s funds and then withheld money the Indian needed to take care of sick children or maintain their home. Local businesses operated with a separate, inflated price list for Indians.
When Mollie Burkhart’s sister, Anna Brown, went missing in May 1921, she could get little action from the county sheriff or town marshall. When the body of Charles Whitehorn is found a week after Anna disappears and then the body of Anna is found soon after, both clearly murdered, there is little progress in the case. Two months later, the justice of the peace closes his inquiries into the two cases.
Given that the poorly paid lawmen of the era were known to drift back and forth across the line of what was legal and what wasn’t, the lack of investigation wasn’t unusual. The leader of the Dalton Gang was once the main lawman on the Osage reservation. Osage County Sheriff Harve Freas was charged by the Oklahoma State Attorney General with failing to enforce the law. Beyond that, law enforcement officials consistently treated crimes against Indians, including murder, as not worth investigating.
Mollie’s family offered a $2,000 cash reward; the Whitehorn family offered a $2,500 award. Local businessman and rancher William K. Hale also put up an award. Deaths of Osage Indians continued.
In 1922, oilman Barney McBride was sent to Washington, D.C., to try to pressure the federal government to investigate. Shortly after he arrived, his stabbed and beaten body was found dumped in a Maryland culvert. Pawhuska attorney W. W. Vaughan was contacted by the dying George Bigheart (a nephew of Chief Bigheart), who said he had information about the murders. Vaughan went to the Oklahoma City hospital where Vaughan was being care for. Afterward, he boarded an overnight train back to Pawhuska. He never arrived. Thirty-six hours later, his body was found lying by the train tracks 30 miles north of Oklahoma City. He’d been thrown from the train.
The situation was starting to attract attention. Hoover, attempting to bring a level of professionalism, integrity and control to the FBI, appointed Tom White, respected for his fairness and integrity, to lead the investigation. While Hoover favored college-educated, suit-wearing agents, he believed that White, a former Texas Ranger, could blend in and get the job done better. White brings in an undercover team and builds a case from the botched previous attempts surrounded by misinformation, rumor and leaks from the investigation.
To describe much more about White’s drive for justice in these cases, would be to give away too much of the story.
Having grown up not far from Pawhuska, the capitol of the Osage Nation and the county seat of Osage County, I found Grann’s descriptions vivid enough to make me homesick. The book has plenty of illustrations. This is a book guaranteed to haunt you.
If you found this book interesting, you might also enjoy YELLOW BIRD: OIL, MURDER, AND A WOMAN’S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE IN INDIAN COUNTRY by Sierra Crane Murdoch. This book is about the search a young trucker named Kristopher Clarke, who disappeared from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation North Dakota in the middle of an oil boom that had toxic consequences for the reservation and its inhabitants.
About the Author: David Grann
David Grann, the bestselling author of The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, is a staff writer at the New Yorker. His work has garnered several honors of outstanding journalism, including a George Polk Award.