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“In the 1920’s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.”

“Killer of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” author David Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a bestselling author. In this well-documented and thoroughly-researched book, he sheds light on another dark chapter in American history.

In the early 1870s the Osage Indians were forced from their land in Kansas onto what was then considered a worthless rocky reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. But as the oil industry boomed, this “worthless” land was just the rugged surface features atop one of the biggest oil reserves in the U.S.

Oil prospectors paid the Osage royalties and in the early twentieth century, each member on the tribal roll started receiving checks. Big. Huge. Checks. They eventually got millions. This sudden wealth had equally sudden consequences.

America, fed by a racist and sensationalistic press, went bananas over stories of the Osage community’s sudden blast to the rich life. Their fame attracted the worst sort of corrupt white men with unscrupulous designs for attaining the “headrights,” or the heritable shares of oil royalties owed individual members of the Osage Nation.

The Osage began to be killed, but the local authorities and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for the most part, failed to uphold justice or the law. The growing backlog of unsolved murders was brought to the attention of Washington in 1925 by a local lawman, James M. Pyle, who sought assistance from the Bureau of Investigation.

The wealth of some of the Osage victims attracted national press and became an embarrassment for the newly-formed FBI, so J. Edgar Hoover appointed a former Texas ranger with the unfortunate name of Thomas B. White to investigate.

The Osage murders were in some ways the FBI’s first big case, and one that Hoover used to help make his mark on Washington and recreate the image of the FBI as a solid investigatory agency.

Grann weaves a compelling tale through years of research and the staggering amount of evidence that identified one man, William Hale, as a mastermind behind the slaughter of at least 20 of the Osage. As Grann’s reputation as a researcher became known throughout the Osage community, ancestors of victims sought him out to share their stories of family members disappearing and fortunes lost. He realized the murderous reign was not limited to the government’s original estimate of 24 Osage members, but was easily in the hundreds and involved multiple murderers.

Hale was finally convicted of murder in 1929 and jailed for life, but was paroled in 1947. Nearly all of the other murders remain unsolved.

After decades of mismanagement of the oil rights of the Osage by the Department of the Interior, “in 2011, the US government settled with the Osage for $380 million. The settlement also strengthened management of the tribe’s trust assets and improved communications between the Department of Interior and the tribe,” Grann writes.

There is no easy way for our nation to make amends to the Osage survivors. There is no simple explanation to explain away the prejudice that led to so much murderous loss of not only human life, but the completely illegal confiscation of wealth that was rightfully theirs. This well-written chronicle goes the distance to return the Osage to their due place in American history, but will we do ours and rewrite the history books?

“Killer of the Flower Moon”:

  • Book club must-read
  • It’s never too late to correct the record
  • Available on MORE libraries system

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Jay Gilbertson is the Wisconsin author of The Madeline Island Series. His website is www.jaygilbertson.com; “Like” him on Facebook, too. Feel free to contact Jay at jay@jaygilbertson.com

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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