Plains Folk

Killers in the Osage Oilpatch


There exists in the public mind a sense that petroleum booms are invariably accompanied by crime and corruption. Which they are–but the question remains, is it an inordinate amount of crime and corruption, or just what you would expect with a sudden increase in population and revenues? Also, how much is grounded fact, and how much is storytelling?

My friends Bill Caraher and Bret Weber, for instance, along with a few collaborators, spent a great deal of time in recent years exploring and thinking about the man camps of the Bakken oilpatch of North Dakota. I mean, they did close observation and deep description, scholarly stuff. Their observations do not find any criminal culture; indeed, they speak to a basic sense of everyday honesty and hard work that is laudable.

My sense is that tawdry crime stories from the oilpatch–any oilpatch, whether it be Cushing, El Dorado, Salt Creek, or Williston–are over-hyped. Most people are just trying to make a living. The big revenues generated, however, attract big criminals, who often wield power.

Exhibit A: the Reign of Terror in the Osage Nation during the early 1920s.

The Osage Nation lay in east-central Oklahoma, spread across formerly idyllic hill country. The Osage had been forced out of Kansas a half-century earlier, compelled to remove to Oklahoma. The eventual, general development of the Midcontinent Field touched the Osage specifically.

Petroleum exploration was explosive, driven by spectacular lease auctions conducted under the legendary Million Dollar Elm in Pawhuska. The amazing development was that the Osage, despite losing most of their land base through allotment, managed to hang on to all their royalty rights–which, by 1923, generated $30 million a year in tribal revenue.

Tribal members possessing headrights each got a share of this revenue in the form of an annual payment. The national press loved to write about the lavish lifestyles of the newly enriched Osage, but of course, this was the 1920s, and the Osage were just doing what other people of wealth were doing across the country.

They were, however, vulnerable, and they were targeted. Through marriage, and more so because of certain legal provisions, their white neighbors executed elaborate schemes to get their hands on the money.

The principal means of getting Osage money was to get appointed guardians of Indians, under provisions of federal law. When the money did not free up fast enough, the guardians, or their hirelings, commenced killing the Indians–most often by poisoning, sometimes by other violent means.

The new book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, details the Osage killings as never before told.

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture says, “Estimates vary, but approximately twenty-four Osage Indians died violent or suspicious deaths during the early 1920s.” After extensive research, Grann says the number murdered was more likely two hundred or more. For money. Lots of money.

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