Through the 1920s, an epidemic of killings and mysterious deaths terrorized the Osage Indians of northern Oklahoma. After their tribal land began gushing oil decades earlier, white fortune hunters descended on Osage territory in droves, looking for ways to take their property and tap their massive oil wealth. The most callous got close to their victims, earning trust through marriage or guardianship—before taking their money and sometimes being a party to their murder.
Osage Wealth Begets ‘Reign of Terror’
In the early 1920s, Osage Indians were the richest people, per capita, on the planet. According to journalist David Grann, author of the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, oil leases paid the Osage nation more than $30 million in 1923 alone (equivalent to more than $400 million today). The tribe distributed royalties equally among its few thousand enrolled members, whose shares were known as “headrights.”
Since headrights couldn’t be bought or sold—only inherited—outsiders had to either marry into an Osage family or become a legal guardian. Intermarriage between white and Native people, unusual in a country where European settlers historically treated Indigenous people with cruelty and prejudice, rose dramatically in northern Oklahoma.
And after the federal government passed a 1921 law requiring Osage members to prove “competency” with money, or else be assigned a financial guardian, lawyers poured into the region, eager to serve—and skim. A 1924 study by the Indian Rights Association, a policy and advocacy group founded by non-Indians, estimated that guardians had stolen at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards, calling it an “orgy of graft and exploitation.”
Most disturbing was the way wealthy Osage people kept turning up dead. From 1907 to 1923 alone, they succumbed at more than one-and-a-half times the national rate, calculates Dennis McAuliffe, author of The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation.
Unlike the family killings—and subsequent criminal convictions—documented in Grann’s book and dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s film Killers of the Flower Moon, scores of similar Osage murders went unprobed and unprosecuted. The reason, according to researchers and tribal people: widespread indifference, corruption and collusion by local white officials.
Police investigations—if they happened—often blamed the victims, writes McAuliffe, a former Washington Post journalist. Deliberate poisonings were chalked up to drinking bad liquor. Shootings got labeled as suicides. Autopsies were often skipped, burials rushed and death certificates falsified. Such was the case with his grandmother, whose mysterious death inspired his book.
Estimates vary on how many Osage people were killed during what came to be called the “Reign of Terror”—from the Fed’s low official count of 24 (based on its Bureau of Investigation’s limited inquiry) to a high in the hundreds. Some, like the Osage Nation and National Archives historian Jessie Kratz, estimate the total around 60. “The real number,” McAuliffe writes, “may never be known.” But according to his calculations, even by conservative estimates, the Osage were not only the richest people per capita at the time—they were also the most murdered.
The Marriage Strategy
The tribe’s oil wealth attracted hordes of white, marriage-minded suitors. According to McAuliffe, “single Osage women became objects of hot pursuit,” prompting a “flood” of letters to the Osage Agency seeking oil-rich brides, sight unseen. C.T. Plimer of Joplin, Missouri wrote a typical missive: “I…want a good Indian girl for a wife… For every Five Thousand Dollars she is worth, I will give you Twenty Five Dollars. If she is worth 25,000 you would get $125 if I got her.”
According to Grann, one white woman married to an Osage man told a reporter how locals would openly scheme: “A group of traders and lawyers sprung up who selected certain Indians as their prey. They owned all the officials… These men had an understanding with each other. They cold-bloodedly said, ‘You take So-and-So, So-and-So and So-and-So and I’ll take these.’ They selected Indians who had full headrights and large farms.”
The murders of Mollie Burkhart’s family members, one after another between 1918 and 1923, constitute an appalling case of marital greed and malice, given the complicity of her husband Ernest. Her mother, three sisters, a brother-in-law and a cousin all died in that time, by bullets, bombing or possible poisoning. Mollie and her son only narrowly avoided being at her sister’s home when it exploded. Several concerned white locals who promised to seek help from the feds also turned up dead—one thrown from a train, another brutally stabbed outside a D.C. billiards hall.
Mollie became her family’s sole survivor and headright holder. As she grieved and sought answers, her husband Ernest began slowly tainting her daily insulin injections with poison, prodded by his scheming uncle and aided by a pair of corrupt doctors.
The Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI) finally launched a probe and succeeded in uncovering the vast murderous conspiracy. At the center stood Ernest Burkhart’s uncle, William K. Hale, a prominent land baron. According to the investigation, the self-styled pillar of the community and “best friend” to the Osage secretly employed his nephew and others to execute Mollie’s kin—and widely colluded with local officials to cover it all up over a period of years. He and Burkhart received life sentences. Both were ultimately paroled.
The Guardianship Strategy
Another way outsiders got close to Osage money was to secure appointments as financial guardians. While some administrators genuinely sought to help their wards navigate the challenges of sudden, massive wealth, many exploited them. According to the 1924 Indian Rights Association report, rich Oklahoma Indians were being “shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner.” Guardianships, it asserted, had corruption baked in, since many were “the plums…distributed to the faithful friends of the judges as a reward for their support at the polls.” In 1924, the Interior Department charged two dozen Osage County lawyer-guardians with corruption. All the cases were settled with pleas.
In an interview with HISTORY.com, former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray, a direct descendent of Mollie’s murdered cousin Henry Roan Horse, says guardian laws were created to rob Osage people of their autonomy. “It was a product of the policies of the day when they took away the rights of the Osage to spend the money however they wanted to. [And] if you were an Osage woman, you even had fewer political rights than your male counterparts.”
Skimming money proved a common strategy, writes McAuliffe. In 1925, for example, quarterly headrights payments averaged $3,350. But restricted Osages (those deemed “incompetent” and subject to guardianship) got $1,000, while their guardians pocketed the rest. The 1924 report recounts story after story of guardians fleecing Native people in other ways too: withholding funds for basic needs, charging exorbitant fees and taking kickbacks from vendors on wildly overpriced goods.
But government records hint at even more sinister actions. In researching the Reign of Terror, Grann found a Bureau of Indian Affairs logbook listing Osage guardians and their wards during that time, noting whether the latter had died while under guardianship. One administrator, whose wards included Mollie’s mother and sister Anna, had seven Osage wards die while he oversaw their money. Another had eight of his 11 wards pass away, while yet another saw more than half of his 13 die. “The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate,” writes Grann.
In his book, McAuliffe investigates the death of his grandmother, Sybil Bolton, who was shot in the chest while playing with her 16-month-old daughter (McAuliffe’s mother) in broad daylight in front of the home of her stepfather and guardian, A.T. Woodward. Using the FBI’s Osage files, along with extensive investigative reporting and personal family accounts, McAuliffe presents robust evidence discrediting the official determination of suicide as the cause of death. He concluded she’d likely been shot by Woodward himself, whose financial misdeeds she’d discovered. The Bureau of Indian Affairs log revealed that Woodward had four other wards, Grann writes. All four also died under his watch.
The Generational Trauma of the Reign of Terror
McAuliffe shares the experience of many Osage descendants who lost family members. They’ve lived with nagging certainty of foul play, unable to find justice because of nonexistent or fabricated records—and lingering family lies. Some count both a victim and a perpetrator among their blood kin and have grown up with contradictory stories of the deaths. McAuliffe’s mother, raised by her white father and stepmother after Sybil Bolton died, had long been told that her healthy 21-year-old mother died of kidney disease. Learning the truth in her 60s, writes McAuliffe, upended her world—and that of her children.
Ola Mae Revard-Davis was just two years old when her young Osage mother died in 1918. From then on, Ola Mae suffered neglect and abuse from those meant to protect and care for her, says her granddaughter Olivia Gray, an Osage citizen who works fighting for awareness of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Abandoned by their white father, Ola Mae and her brother were raised by Osage grandparents. When they died, the children's white grandmother then deposited them in a Texas orphanage, Gray tells HISTORY.com, “so they [the white father and his family] could collect their headrights.” In one spending spree, Gray recounts, that grandmother requested $20,000 just for furniture (equivalent to approximately $307,000 today).
After a decade, their father retrieved them from the orphanage—but not out of kindness, Gray says. He and his new white wife had been living off his deceased wife's allotment, and the tribe was threatening to cut him off—and asking about the children. “That's when they went and got my grandmother and her brother from the orphanage,” Gray says. “Nobody loved them.”
At age 13, Ola Mae, who inherited her headright at age 2, married her court-appointed guardian, Frank Simpson—"probably the closest thing she had to somebody,” says Gray. “He was literally old enough to be her grandfather. She always spoke very highly of him, but she was a victim.”
“Because he was her guardian, he controlled all of her money and all of her affairs,” says Gray. “I don't have a lot of nice things to say.”