Everyone’s history deserves to be told. One of the principal reactions I had to David Grann’s new book, about a series of heinous murders committed against wealthy Osage Indians in the 1920s, was incredulity that I had never heard even an inkling about this terrible chapter in American history.
The story, in brief: after being forced out of their original homeland the Osage Indians found themselves on a rocky, arid plain in Oklahoma that was given to them essentially because no one else wanted it. The Osage were smart enough to ensure that the terms of their agreement gave them the rights to any minerals and materials underneath their land. Each member of the tribe owned a share of the mineral rights, so when oil was struck they all hit it rich. For a time the Osage were the richest group of people per capita in the United States.
As you can probably imagine, a bunch of Indians getting all this money made many white people upset. The government also wasn’t thrilled, and they took the extraordinary step of declaring full-blooded Osage incapable of managing their own finances, appointing white “guardians” to authorize all their spending. White merchants in the Oklahoma boomtowns reached unprecedented heights in price-gouging, charging the Osage exorbitant markups on everything.
These indignities were bad enough but eventually the situation deteriorated into mayhem. Members of the tribe began dying in violent or suspicious manners. Grann’s book begins with the story of Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy, full-blooded Osage whose family was picked off one by one, with one sister shot, another sister blown up, and her mother poisoned.
Local authorities got nowhere in their investigation, due to a combination of incompetence and corruption. Eventually the brand new FBI took over the case, with J. Edgar Hoover himself appointing a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to the job.
At this point the book becomes more of a straight-ahead account of White’s team and their investigation, the difficulties they faced and the hard-fought victories they won. It’s a bit unfortunate that during this stretch the book sidelines the Osage themselves, but Grann is holding something back for the book’s hard-hitting final section, when his original reporting adds some terrifying context to the story. While the whole story will never be known, Grann has clearly put forth a monumental effort and answered as many questions as anyone could.