Archives Experience Newsletter - November 7, 2023
This Actually Happened
If you watched Killers of the Flower Moon in disbelief, you weren’t alone. After the movie premiered, Google searches for “Osage” increased 75%, and one of the most searched-for phrases was “is Killers of the Flower Moon true?” This is often the reaction whenever a little-known chapter of our history is made into media for public consumption. But the story—and proof of it—have been in the National Archives for decades. Today, we’ll show you the records and how they were uncovered.
In this issue
Their ancestral lands…
Ownership of their land’s mineral rights was immensely profitable…
Osage were dying mysterious and violent deaths…
Cunning, determined, and ruthless…
The mastermind behind all the murders…
Grann began his research at the National Archives…
= target for murder…
People of the Middle Waters
The Osage Tribe has deep roots in our nation, first emerging as a people around 700 B.C. Osage means “People of the Middle Waters” and likely relates to where their tribe first developed: in the valley of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Centuries later, they remained close to the water as they migrated west and settled where the Mississippi met the Missouri.
It was here that they claimed their ancestral lands, establishing a powerful presence throughout the Midwest. They were feared and respected by other tribes and White settlers because they were a nation of brilliant warriors, strategic traders, and skilled hunters. Their trading posts were key to the economic prosperity of the West, and the Osage nation flourished as they established relationships with French fur traders.
But after the Louisiana Purchase, things for the Osage began to turn. Early after the land acquisition, famed explorer Meriwether Lewis advised President Thomas Jefferson that the powerful Osage would become a problem. The population of the eastern United States was growing, and pioneers were eager to venture off into “unsettled” lands. Because the Osage were much too powerful for the U.S. government to take on, it became a quiet, but deliberate, strategy to goad other tribes into war with them. As the government was forcing tribes in the east off their lands, the Osage saw them not as displaced nations, but as invaders. While settlers moved west and claimed acreage for themselves, tribes were fighting among one another for parcels of land that were shrinking every day.
The 19th century was painful for the Osage. In the 1830s, missionaries and settlers descended on the tribe—and so did smallpox. The casualties were severe and devastating. By the time the Civil War erupted, the Osage were residing in modern-day Kansas, but the soon-to-be state was embroiled in its own conflict about whether it would join the Union as a free or a slave state. Although the Osage attempted to stay neutral throughout the Civil War, geography was not their friend. They were surrounded on all sides by Union and Confederate forces, and both sides raided the Osage nation for food and supplies. As a result, the Osage suffered a devastating famine, and by the 1870s, they had lost half of their population.
By the end of the Civil War, the Osage were ready to abandon their battle-torn Kansas lands. They sold their territory to the Grant Administration, and—in a rare move for tribal nations—purchased their own reservation in Indian Territory, now modern-day Oklahoma. Although they owned their new land, the Osage were worn down after years of disease, war, displacement, and poverty. Until they struck gold.
In 1894, oil was found under the Osage reservation in Indian Territory. Despite a government-imposed cap that restricted the Osage to 10% of the oil profits, their ownership of their land’s mineral rights was immensely profitable—so profitable, in fact, that the tribe made between $10-30 million per year, making them the richest people per capita in the world.
Then, on March 3, 1921, Congress enacted a “guardianship” program, ostensibly to help the Osage manage their funds. Any individual who was more than half “Indian blood” or an Osage minor had to have a guardian who would be appointed until they could prove that they were “competent” enough to manage their own funds. Guardians were entitled to payment for their services, which they often took directly out of Osage profits. When a member of the Osage nation proved their competency, they were tracked on Indian census rolls.
The guardianship program didn’t protect the Osage—it put a target on their backs. Wanting a piece of the profits, white settlers flocked to Oklahoma, and unscrupulous businessmen, lawyers, and others attempted to swindle the Osage out of their mineral rights. But the most insidious attempts came from white male settlers who married Osage women to assert their rights as a spouse, become their guardian, and gain control over their money.
But relying on profits from the guardianship program only yielded so much profit. Enter the protagonist of Killers of the Flower Moon: Mollie Burkhart.
Mollie was an Osage woman married to a white man, Ernest Burkhart. Mollie’s large family owned multiple properties on the Osage reservation, and they were thriving off the profits generated from their mineral rights. But in 1918, Mollie’s sister Minnie died of a mysterious “wasting illness.” Just a few years later, her mother, Lizzie Q, died of a similar disease. In May 1921, Mollie’s sister, Anna, was found dead in a ravine with a bullet in the back of her head. Less than two years later, Mollie’s cousin Henry Roan was shot and killed. And in a particularly violent incident, Mollie’s third sister Rita and her brother-in-law Bill were killed when an explosion leveled their house.
Mollie and her family weren’t the only victims. Across the reservation, the Osage were dying mysterious and violent deaths that local authorities were too quick to declare accidents, suicides, or alcohol poisoning. But the Osage knew the truth. In 1925, they petitioned a new federal law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to look into these crimes. The Bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, was eager to investigate.
FBI agents went undercover and embedded within the tribe and among settlers. As they began untangling the web of lies, death, and destruction, one name was at the center of it all: William Hale.
Hale was a local rancher, but he was also known by another moniker, “King of the Osage Hills.” Cunning, determined, and ruthless, Hale understood the potential profit he could reap by swindling the Osage out of their mineral rights. He also forged life insurance policies, taking one out on Mollie’s cousin, Henry Roan, for $25,000, of which he was the sole beneficiary. Two weeks later, Roan was dead. When his cons failed to produce the kind of money he was looking for, Hale turned to murder. But he didn’t work alone. One of his conspirators was another local, John Ramsey. The other was his nephew: Ernest Burkhart.
Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle made sense. Under the guardianship program, Ernest had applied for and had been granted guardianship over Mollie. When members of her family began mysteriously dying, their mineral rights were transferred within the family. Soon, she was the only one left.
A Change of Heart
In 1926, Hale, Ramsey, and Burkhart were all indicted on charges of conspiracy and murder. At first, Ernest pleaded not guilty, but two months into his trial, he had a change of heart. With this change of plea came his story: Hale was the mastermind behind all the murders. Knowing to whom mineral rights would transfer upon a death in the family, Hale had carefully plotted the order in which Mollie’s family members were murdered. Once she had inherited all the mineral rights from the rest of her family, she would be murdered last so Ernest could reap the maximum reward.
During Ernest’s trial, it was revealed that Mollie’s attempted murder was already in progress when doctors found poison in her bloodstream. Fortunately, she made a full recovery.
Hale and his coconspirators were eventually convicted of the murders of Mollie’s family. But more than 60 deaths had occurred on the reservation over the seven-year period the Osage called the “Reign of Terror.” Many of these murders still remain unsolved.
Uncovering the Story
Before the debut of the blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Lily Gladstone, this dark chapter of our history remained relatively unknown. So how do these little-known stories get uncovered? For author David Grann, it started with a visit to the Osage Nation museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in 2012. On one of the walls was a beautiful panoramic photo of members of the Osage nation alongside white settlers. But one of the panels had quite obviously been cut out. When Grann asked the museum curator why, she said, “The devil was standing right there.”
The devil was William Hale. But Grann didn’t want to center his book on the person who caused so much destruction. Instead, he chose Mollie, the sole survivor of her family and a person who worked tirelessly to seek justice. “At great peril to her own life, she crusaded for justice. I didn’t think you could understand these events without her perspective,” said Grann.
To tell Mollie’s story, Grann began his research at the National Archives Museum in Fort Worth. Hearing of his compelling research, Archives staff worked to help David pull more than 3,000 documents relevant to the Osage, including:
- original accounts from Osage who lived through that time;
- records from private investigators who tried to both solve the crimes and cover them up;
- secret grand jury testimony; and
- records from J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who took on the case that made the Bureau what it is today.
Grann also conducted oral history interviews with descendants of the Osage who lived through the Reign of Terror.
According to Grann, “The museum director had removed the photograph of the killer not to forget what happened, but because the Osage can’t forget. And yet too many Americans, including myself, had either forgotten or never knew about this part of history….I think this episode is a further reminder that much of our history is scattered in archives, crying out to be told.”