Book review: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

During May of 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson. This Act authorized the president of the United States to negotiate with southern Native American Tribes for their removal to federal territories west of the Mississippi River in exchange for tribal lands in the Southeastern United States, which were desired by cotton and other farmers east of The Mississippi River.

According to some of the history published by the Cherokee Museum, the Cherokee Nation took their case resisting this removal to the United States Supreme Court, which held in Worcester v. Georgia that the Cherokees were a sovereign nation and could not be removed without their consent.

However, President Jackson ignored this decision, and he continued enforcing the Indian Removal Act. Thus, Cherokee people were forcibly taken from their homelands, incarcerated in stockades, forced to walk more than one thousand miles and removed to “Indian Territory,” which is now known as the state of Oklahoma. In the Choctaw language, Oklahoma means “red people.”

Over 4,000 Cherokees died during this trek and were buried in unmarked graves along The Trail Where They Cried, better known today as The Trail of Tears.

With this very brief background in mind, I have chosen a book for this review entitled ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann.

This is a 2017 book available in hardcover (296 pages), soft cover, and electronically.

It concerns a series of murders and mysterious deaths between 1921 and 1926 among the Osage Indian Nation in and around Gray Horse, Hominy and Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

The book also describes that Osage land claims go back to the 17th Century when they laid claim to what is now Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in addition to lands running west to the Rocky Mountains.

When, in 1803, under President Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase took place, the Osage land claim to the Central quarter of our nation was considered a weak point in our expansion, and the Osage Nation was compelled to cede almost 100 million acres of ancestral lands.

Although the Osage Nation was moved several times by the United States government, their plight in 1870 was not as drastic as that of the Cherokee Nation. However, their remaining lands in Kansas were purchased by the government for $1.25 per acre.

After searching for new land, the Osage purchased 1.5 million acres of mostly barren land in Northeast Oklahoma from the Cherokee Nation for seventy cents per acre. Ironically, the Osage chose this land because they felt that it was so undesirable that no one else would ever want it or force them to move again.

Then, starting in 1920, luck changed dramatically for the Osage, because their barren lands sat over large deposits of oil, which, in 1923 alone, generated over $30 Million (equivalent to approximately $400 Million today) for them. The Osage, per capita, were considered the wealthiest people in the world at that time.

To extract this oil from under lands owned by individual Osage owners, prospectors, including names like Getty, Skelly, and Phillips, paid them for leases and royalties, which increased substantially as did our demand for oil in the 1920s.

With all of this wealth, the United States government contended that the Osage people were unable to prudently handle their money. So, the government required the Office of Indian Affairs to appoint guardians to oversee the management and spending by Osage owners.

These guardians were drawn from the most prominent men in Osage County, Oklahoma. While many of these Guardians fulfilled their fiduciary duties honestly, there were, unfortunately, a number who did not. There were some who sold food, products, clothing and cars to Osage owners at greatly inflated prices, with many of these items coming from stores owned by the Guardian.

Some of the guardians resorted to murdering individual Osage owners. There were at least 24 known suspicious deaths of Osage owners between 1921 and 1926. It is now suspected that there were significantly more mysterious deaths during this same time period, which were never investigated or solved.

During the times of these suspicious deaths, lawmen, according to the author, were still amateurs, who rarely attended training academies or learned any of the emerging scientific methods of detection, such as fingerprints and blood patterns.

Frontier lawmen were primarily gunfighters and trackers hired to deter crime and apprehend, alive, if possible, or dead, if necessary, offenders.

Actually, in the late 19th century, a leader of the Dalton Gang served as a Sheriff. When these mysterious deaths among the Osage owners started to occur, the Sheriff of Osage County was considered to be corrupt and displayed very little concern about these deaths.

Consequently, the Osage owners resorted to hiring private detectives to investigate these mysterious deaths. Several of these suspicious deaths appeared to be the result of poisoning; however, no coroner in Osage County was ever trained in forensics which resulted in poisoning being the almost perfect way to commit murder.

In 1923, the Osage began to petition for the Federal Government’s involvement in these investigations, primarily because it had no great ties to County and State corrupt officials. As a result, agents of the Bureau of Investigation, which had been created in 1908 as an obscure branch of the Justice Department–that in 1935 would be renamed as the Federal Bureau of 
Investigation–finally arrived in Osage County.

These agents were strictly fact finders with no power to make arrests, nor could they carry firearms.

After President Harding and his scandalous (including the Teapot Dome Scandal) administration left office, Calvin Coolidge succeeded as president, and he immediately started cleaning up the Executive Branch of the federal government.

In 1924, according to the author, Coolidge appointed Harlan Fiske Stone as his Attorney General, who, because of the growth of the country and profusion of Federal Laws, concluded that a national police force was important. Stone, then, selected J. Edgar Hoover, who was only 29 years of age, to act as director of this national police force.

Hoover quickly implemented the reforms requested by Stone, which furthered Hoover’s desire to remake the investigation bureau into a modern police force by raising its employment qualifications for new agents. Agents were required to have some legal training or knowledge of accounting.

Hoover felt that solving the Osage killings was an important means of establishing his newly-formed bureau. Therefore, Hoover assigned as many agents as he felt necessary to succeed in this investigation.

These agents included a former New Mexico sheriff and several Texas rangers. Most of these agents operated undercover, such as appearing as an insurance salesman, a rancher and even an Indian medicine salesman claiming to be searching for his relatives.

The book then offers an in-depth look at how this investigation started and proceeded, as well as detailed backgrounds of some of the agents conducting the investigations.

I think an interesting note in the book brought out that the oil leases dried up during the depression, but in more recent times, the Osage have found a new source of revenue in seven successful casinos.

Finally, in 2011, after an 11-year legal battle, the federal government agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the Osage Nation for $380 Million.

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May 2019Volume 10Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)