Author: David Grann.

Title: "Killers of the Flower Moon – The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI."

Publisher: Doubleday. 2017. 291 pages of text with BW photos throughout.

The Osage people, driven ever west by the expansion of white America finally sold their land in Kansas, which the U.S. government declared “would remain their home forever,” and bought 1.3 million acres from the Cherokee in what was then Indian Territory.

Although they viewed this land as “broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” an Osage chief said, “My people will be happy in this land. … White man will not come to this land. There are too many hills here … white man does not like country where there are hills, and he will not come.” The white men then may not have liked the hills, but they did like oil.

David Grann writes the land of the Osage was subject to allotment solely among members of the tribe with each individual receiving 657 acres. But in the allotment agreement the Osage added a provision, “That the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands … are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.” Each tribal member “received a headright – essentially, a share in the tribe’s mineral trust.”

When Oklahoma became a state, members of the tribe could sell their land, but the mineral trust covering all of Osage County remained under tribal control, “so no one could buy or sell headrights. These could only be inherited.” Their minerals constituted an underground reservation. Grann notes with the discovery of oil in that era “The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”

A number of wealthy Osage women married white men. Since the minerals could only be obtained through inheritance soon Osage people began to die. Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Osage, married Ernest Burkhart, a white man, with whom she had several children. He ran her affairs. Many other Osage were deemed to need guardians.

William Hale, a prominent white rancher in the county who through hard work had gone from nothing to owning 45,000 acres, was Ernest’s uncle. When Mollie’s sister Anna was killed, investigations to find her killer were unsuccessful. They had no better luck with the murders and mysterious deaths of more and more Osage people. Hale promised a reward and said, “We’ve got to stop the bloody business.” Not trusting local and state law enforcement the Osage sought help from the federal government.

In 1924 the Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone started to clean out the Bureau of Investigation. In December 1924 he appointed the bureau’s deputy director as the director, and thus 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover sprang into action over the Osage murders as he wanted a successful image for the Bureau.

The real hero of this story is Tom White, a “six foot four” bureau special agent, who had been a Texas Ranger, who “talked like he looked and shot – right on target.” White was given the authority to select the agents he wanted, some of whom would move into Osage County in undercover roles. A case was built against those men who plotted murders to take over headrights, arrests were made, there starts and stops of trials, witness tampering and bribery, all of which was in the news.

Ultimately Ernest Burkhart confessed to conspiracy to commit murder, while Hale and an associate were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and murder. With those convictions the role of the bureau in the Osage murders was over. With this nationally known success, the bureau became the Federal Bureau of Investigation with Hoover remaining firmly in control for more than five decades.

But Grann did more than write the history of these infamous murders of Osage people in what they refer to as the “Reign of Terror.” He continued to investigate and concluded there were a lot more murders of Osage people which were never investigated or prosecuted.

Grann has written a compelling narrative of a truly horrific and broad conspiracy to kill Osage people so their headrights could be controlled or inherited by white men who would stop at nothing, even the murders of their own family. This book is a quick read. My only complaint is an index would have been very helpful.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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