My first book review for the Star-Herald was David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, 18 months ago. So, when I learned the Osage were a neighbor of the Ponca, along the Trail of Tears and cousins as part of five sister tribes that also included the Omaha, Kaw and Quapaw, I was excited to visit their tribal agency in the nearby Pawhuska, Okla.
My hope was to visit with some Osage elders who knew the story of Mollie Burkhart and her family’s mysterious deaths, part of dozens of murders during the Osage Reign of Terror in the early 1900’s. The book chronicles the deaths of Mollie’s sisters, mother, first husband and brother-in-law, as well as others who owned headrights on the oil rich reservation, recently allotted to individual Osage tribal members.
My first stop, at the tribal museum, didn’t yield much fruit on the real life murder mystery angle or the 1877 visits between the Ponca of Nebraska and the Osage of Oklahoma, but I did see a great exhibit of Ponca wedding regalia.
That story began with Thomas Jefferson inviting Osage chiefs to Washington, DC, following the Louisiana Purchase to make peace with the men he meant to conquer. Gifts of military jackets were much too small for the Osage men, so their daughters decorated them and wore them as badges of honor at their weddings. Gold braid, buttons and epaulets were added to the jackets, set off by multi-colored feathers surrounding a top hat.
I’d wondered about the unusual outfit I spied in the matriarchal exhibit at the Marland Grand Home, but at the OTM, there were dozens of examples, including a modern-day jacket fashioned by a high couture designer for her daughter’s traditional (?) Osage wedding ceremony. The jacket had hidden meanings sewn into the lining and the gown was truly a museum piece. No photos allowed.
Tipped off to the Osage County Museum, I met with the director there who gathered much of the research Grann used in his book. Garrett Hartness had spent five years going through 110 years of the local newspapers on microfiche at the local library — the first time for pure reading pleasure, the second time to copy articles about the local Constantine Theater’s development and a third time, documenting in hard copy other seminal events in Pawhuska history, including the Osage Reign of Terror.
Bound in volumes before the museum director had ever heard of Grann, Hartness offered them up to the writer when he visited from New York City. Grann was a feature writer for The New Yorker, working on an article about the murders. The author visited the small town dozens of times during a four-year period as he made friends among the usually closed-off Osage and the article became a book, Hartness said.
Hartness said Grann drove to the murder sites at 2:30 a.m. to get a feel for the time and places Henry Roan and Anna Brown died. He wanted to see the sky and feel the desolation, he said.
During the early 1900s, particularly in the 1920s when the book was centered, full-blooded Osage Indians were deemed incompetent by the U.S. Government and appointed white guardians. Made newly wealthy by the discovery of oil, the guardians sometimes swindled and even disposed of their charges and any investigators who got close to the truth.
Some guardians were friends of the Osage, Hartness said. The Osage welcomed those guardian’s advice, some advisors going so far as to suggest the Osage sell out and/or move to California to stay safe.
There were 600 deaths in the 20 years between the 1906 tribal role and the 1926 role, Hartness said. “Not to say they were all murders,” he added. “But that’s one-third of the tribe dying within 20 years, many under suspicious circumstances.”
Harness said the Osage’s former Principal Chief Red Eagle still owns his family’s original allotment in the area. Katherine Red Corn was a curator for the Osage Tribal Museum and her nephew is the assistant chief of the Osage Tribal Nation, now. Red Corn was not available today to be interviewed, but I purchased her brother,,,,,,, Charles H. Red Corn’s book, giving an account of the drama from an Osage point of view, A Pipe for February.
“At the turn of the 20th century, the Osage Indians were traditional tribal people who owned Oklahoma’s most valuable oil reserves. By the 1920s, the Osage became members of the world’s first wealthy oil population and Osage children, adults and elders found they could live lives of leisure. They built large homes, purchased expensive cars, enjoyed fine restaurants and traveled to faraway places. They also found themselves targets of opportunists, swindlers and murderers bent on taking their wealth from them,” Red Corn writes.
Other accounts of the era are The Osage Indian Reign of Terror by Lonnie Underhill and Out of the Osage: The Foster Story, of one family who controlled 1.5 million acres of oil reserves for 16 years, under leases when the allotments began and renewed at least once during the individual tribal member’s ownership of headrights.
Hartness said since Grann wrote his bestseller, any book about the Osage has become instantly more valuable and expensive.