Osage Indian murders

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The Osage Indian murders were a series of murders of Osage Indians in Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s, called the "Reign of Terror" by newspapers. Estimates are that 60 or more wealthy Osage were killed from 1921 to 1925. The murders appear to have been caused by the greed of white men for the great wealth of the Osage, whose land was producing valuable oil and who each had headrights that earned lucrative annual royalties.


In 1907 each tribal member received an allotment of 657 acres, and they and their legal heirs, whether or not Osage, earned royalties on the "headrights" from their portion of oil-producing land. The tribe held the mineral rights communally, and paid its members by a percentage related to their holdings. By a law of 1921, Congress required most Osage of half or more Native American ancestry to have court-appointed guardians until they demonstrated competency; all minors were required to have guardians appointed, whether or not they had living parents. The guardians were generally local white lawyers and businessmen. The Osage wealth attracted many opportunists, some of them with criminal intent.

In 1925 the tribal elders, with the help of James Monroe Pyle, a local law officer, went to the newly organized Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when local and state officials could not solve the rising number of murders. Pyle presented his evidence of murder and conspiracy and requested an investigation. In its undercover investigation, the FBI found that several murders in one family were found to have been committed by a gang led by William "King of Osage Hills" Hale, with the goal of gaining the oil royalty headrights and wealth of tribe members, including his nephew's Osage wife, the last survivor. Three men were convicted and sentenced in this case, but most murders went unsolved. A late twentieth-century investigation by the journalist Dennis McAuliffe revealed deep corruption in the county at the time, with failure to have post-mortem exams, falsified death certificates issued by the coroner's office, and other activities among white officials to cover up the murders.

Osage County officials sought revenge against Pyle for his role in bringing the murders to light. Fearing for his life, Pyle and his wife fled to Arizona where he again became an officer of the law. He died there in 1942.

In 1925 Congress passed a law prohibiting inheritance of headrights by non-natives from Osage of half or more Native American ancestry, to reduce the threat to the Osage. From 1926-1929, Hale and an associate were convicted of the murders; one nephew pleaded guilty; and they were sentenced to life in prison. They later received parole, although the Osage objected. The investigation was an early, high-profile success of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.


In 1897 oil was first discovered in Osage County. The United States federal government's Department of the Interior managed leases for oil exploration and production on land owned by the Osage Nation through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later managed royalties, paying individual allottees. As part of the process of preparing Oklahoma for statehood, the federal government allotted 657 acres to each Osage on the tribal rolls in 1907; thereafter, they and their legal heirs, whether Osage or not, had "headrights" to royalties in oil production, based on their allotments of lands.[1] The headrights could be inherited by legal heirs, including non-Osage.

By 1920 the market for oil had grown dramatically and the Osage were wealthy. People all across the United States read about the Osage, called "the richest nation, clan or social group of any race on earth, including the whites, man for man."[2] Some Osage used their royalties to send their children to private schools; others bought fancy cars, clothes and jewelry, and traveled in Europe; and newspapers across the country covered their activities.[2] Along with tens of thousands of oil workers, the oil wealth attracted many white opportunists to Osage County; as the writer Robert Allen Warrior characterized them, some were entrepreneurial, while others were criminal, seeking to separate the Osage from their wealth, by murder if necessary.[3]

Believing the Osage would not be able to manage their new wealth, or influenced by whites who wanted a piece of the action, by 1921 the United States Congress passed a law requiring Osage of half-blood or more in ancestry to have guardians appointed until they demonstrated "competency". Under the system, even minors who had less than half-Osage blood had to have guardians appointed, regardless of whether the minors had living parents. The courts appointed the guardians from local white lawyers or businessmen. The incentives for criminality were overwhelming; such guardians often maneuvered legally to steal Osage land, their headrights or royalties; others were suspected of murdering their charges to gain the headrights.[1][3]

At that time, 80 lawyers were working in Pawhuska, the Osage County seat, which had 8,000 residents; the number of lawyers was said to be as great as in the state capital, which had 140,000 residents.[4] In 1924 the Department of Interior charged two dozen guardians of Osage with corruption in the administration of their duties related to their charges, but all avoided punishment by settling out of court. They were believed to have swindled their charges out of millions of dollars. In 1925, each Osage headright was worth $1 million in equivalent 1994 dollars, according to the work by the journalist Dennis McAuliffe.[5] In 1929 $27 million was reported still being held by the "Guardian System," an organization set up to protect the financial interests of 883 Osage families in Osage County.[6]

Murders in Osage County[edit]

In the early 1920s, the Western United States was shaken by the murders of eighteen Osage Indians and three non-natives in Osage County, Oklahoma within a short period of time. Regional Colorado newspapers reported the murders as the “Reign of Terror” on the Osage reservation. Some murders seemed to be taking members of one family.

In 1921, locals discovered the body of 25-year-old Anna Brown. Unable to find the killer, local authorities put the case aside. Her mother Lizzie Q. Kyle and sister Rita were later killed as well. By that time, Lizzie had headrights for herself, her late husband and two daughters, making her heirs fabulously wealthy. In February 1923, Henry Roan, a cousin of Brown, was found shot in the head, in his car. A month later, a nitroglycerin bomb demolished the house of Anna's sister Rita Smith and her husband Bill, located in Fairfax, Oklahoma. The blast instantly killed Rita Smith and her servant Nettie Brookshire. A week later, Bill Smith died of massive injuries from the blast.

Thirteen other deaths of full-blooded Osage men and women, who had guardians appointed by the courts, occurred between 1921 and 1923. By 1925 60 wealthy Osage had been killed, and their land had gone to their guardians: local white lawyers and businessmen.[2] The FBI found a low-level market in murderers for hire to kill the Osage for their wealth.[2] In 1995, the writer Robert Allen Warrior wrote about walking through an Osage cemetery and seeing "the inordinate number of young people who died during that time."[3]

In 1925 tribal elders of the Osage Nation hired the assistance of the newly organized Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under its director J. Edgar Hoover.[7] Bureau of Indian Affairs police from the Department of Interior had not solved the murders.

Investigation of the murders[edit]

The FBI sent four agents undercover to the reservation. Working undercover for two years, the agents (John K. Wren, who was one of the investigating agents) discovered a crime ring of petty criminals led by Bill Hale, a wealthy rancher, known in Osage County as the "King of the Osage Hills". He and his nephews, Ernest and Byron Burkhart, had migrated from Texas to Osage County to find jobs in the oil fields. Once there, they discovered the immense wealth of members of the Osage Nation due to their having oil-rich lands.

To gain part of the wealth, Hale persuaded his nephew Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blooded Osage. She was the sister of Anna Brown and Rita Smith.[8] As the evidence revealed, Hale had arranged for the murders of Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q. Kyle; her cousin Henry Roan; Anna Brown; and the Smiths, to cash in on their insurance policies and oil headrights of each family member.[8] Other witnesses and participants were murdered as the conspiracy expanded. Mollie and Ernest Burkhart inherited all of the headrights from her family, and investigators found that Mollie was already being poisoned when they entered the case.[9]

Due to the investigation of the FBI, Hale, his Burkhart nephews, and one of the ranch hands they hired were charged with the murder of Mollie's family. Two accomplices had died before the investigation was completed. Hale and his associates were finally convicted in state and federal trials from 1926 to 1929, which had changes of venues, hung juries, appeals and overturned verdicts. In 1926, Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty to being part of the conspiracy. Finally Hale and his accomplice Ramsey were convicted. His accomplice Byron Burkhart, another nephew, had turned state's evidence. The trials, with their deadlocked juries, appeals, and overturned verdicts, received national newspaper and magazine coverage. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Hale, Ramsey, and Ernest Burkhart later received parole despite Osage protests.[9]

In the early 1990s, the journalist Dennis McAuliffe of the Washington Post investigated the suspicious death of his grandmother Sybil Beekman Bolton, an Osage with headrights who died at the age of 21 in 1925, during the "Reign of Terror." As a youth he had been told she died of kidney disease, then as a suicide. His doubts arose from a variety of conflicting evidence.

In his investigation, McAuliffe found that the FBI of the time believed that the murders of several Osage women of that period "had been committed or ordered by their husbands."[1] Most murders of the Osage during the early 1920s went unsolved.[1] McAuliffe found that the court had appointed Sybil's white stepfather A.T. Woodward, an attorney, as her guardian when she was a minor. Also the federally appointed Tribal Counsel,[10] Woodward had four other Osage charges who had died by 1923.[2] McAuliffe learned that his grandmother's murder had been covered over with a false death certificate, and he came to believe that her white stepfather, A. T. Woodward, was responsible for her death.[1] His book about his investigation, Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation (1994), presents an account of the corruption and murders during this period.[2]

To try to prevent further criminality, in 1925 Congress passed a law prohibiting the inheritance by non-Osage of headrights from Osage who were half or more of Native American ancestry.[9]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • John Joseph Mathews (Osage) based his novel Sundown (1934) in the period of the murders.[3]
  • These events of the Kyle family murders were dramatized as an episode in the 1959 film, The FBI Story.
  • John Hunt portrayed this period in his novel The Grey Horse Legacy (1968).[11]
  • Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit (1990) centers around a fictionalized version of the murders.


  1. ^ a b c d e Dennis McAuliffe (1994), The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: An American History, Times Books; republished as (1994), Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation, Council Oak Books ISBN 978-1-57178-083-6
  2. ^ a b c d e f MARGO JEFFERSON, "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Digging Up a Tale of Terror Among the Osages", New York Times, 31 August 1994, accessed 2 December 2011
  3. ^ a b c d Robert Allen Warrior, "Review Essay: The Deaths of Sybil Bolton by Dennis McAuliffe", Wizcza Sa Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1995, accessed 2 December 2011
  4. ^ McAuliffe, Bloodland, pp. 146-147
  5. ^ McAuliffe, Bloodland, p. 82
  6. ^ Garrick Bailey, Art of the Osage, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 142
  7. ^ "A Byte Out of History: Murder and Mayhem in the Osage Hills", FBI website, 26 January 2005
  8. ^ a b Louis F. Burns, A History of the Osage People, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989) pp. 439-442
  9. ^ a b c "Osage Murders", Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed 2 December 2011
  10. ^ McAuliffe, Bloodland, p. 147
  11. ^ Logston, Guy. Guy Logsdon, "Mathews, John Joseph", Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, 2009. Accessed March 1, 2015.

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