Researching the Osage Murders

November is National Native American Heritage Month! Visit our web page for resources on related records and how we are commemorating the month. Today’s post comes from Becca Watford of the National Archives History Office.

killer-of-the-flower-moon-david-grannIn his recent book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, journalist and bestselling author David Grann brings to light how money and greed led to the tragic murder of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma.

In the 1920s, after the discovery of the presence of millions of dollars in oil under the Osage reservation, a man named William Hale hatched a plot to kill Native Americans so he could take the profits for himself.

The Osage had “headrights,” meaning they received the money from the oil. Although he was behind the murders of at least 60 Native Americansincluding nearly an entire familyHale was put on trial for only one of his victims, Henry Roan.

These crimes occurred in the early years of the FBI, which investigated and arrested William Hale and his accomplice, John Ramsey, for Roan’s murder. The other cases went unsolved; however, the FBI strongly believed Hale was responsible.

For the book, Grann conducted a thorough investigation of the cases against Hale. He went through hundreds of documents in archives all over the country, including the National Archives at Fort Worth. He also interviewed surviving members of the tribes, many of whom had family members killed in the “Reign of Terror” in the 1920s.

Digital copies of the court cases against Hale and Ramsey are available through the National Archives’ online catalog.

Grann started his research on this book as a David S. Ferriero Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Libraries. And yes, that Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. Ferriero was the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries before President Barack Obama appointed him to his current position in 2009.

Ferriero graciously allowed me to interview him. He recalled:

When I was the director of the New York Public Libraries, one of the units I oversaw there was the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, which brings 15 individuals in fiction and nonfiction, who have or are working on research that necessitates the use of the New York Public Library collections. It’s a great opportunity for the staff to expose their collections to a wide variety of writers. They spend an academic year, basically from September to June, at the library offices and have access to the collections. . . . When I left in 2009, a group of donors funded a fellowship at the Cullman Center in my name. And David Grann was one of the recipients of that fellowship [in 2014]. 

While Ferriero did not have a role in Grann’s selection, he spoke of their first meeting:

I didn’t get to meet him until after he had been appointed. We traded emails, and I congratulated him for being appointed. And then one of the requirements of the fellows is that they have to give a lecture to their fellow fellows at the center and describe their research. At the end there is a wonderful Q&A for people to ask questions. I was invited back to those lunches, and that was the first time I met him. I attended a subsequent conversation when David Grann described the beginning of his research. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that we at the National Archives must have something that he could use. So we had a conversation.

After that conversation, Ferriero asked his special assistant, Maureen MacDonald, to identify National Archives records on this fascinating topic. She then reached out to the National Archives staff who worked with these records, and together they found more than 3,000 documents relating to the Osage murders.

Warrant for William K. Hale, January 22, 1926. (National Archives Identifier 7682500)

The Archivist and several National Archives staff are among the first acknowledgments in the book. While pleased to be thanked, Ferriero said:

When I see my name, I always interpret that as the acknowledgment of not me personally but the National Archives in general. I always try and go out of my way to show that to the staff.

When I asked the Archivist how he liked the book, he said:

I was impressed with his research. I was surprised, and probably shouldn’t have been surprised by what he discovered—the sad tale, the deceits and the destruction of a culture basically . . .

The book is being turned into a movie, and when I asked him if he was going to appear as a cameo, he laughed, remarking:

I doubt it, no. I don’t think so. I think that’s part of the story that probably will be ignored. It’s not a documentary about the process of writing the book, it’s a dramatization of the story.

Ferriero said he first became interested in Native American history as a small child:

I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts. There’s lots of Indian heritage in Massachusetts. The town next door was Wenham, Massachusetts, which was actually known as ‘Enon’ by the Indians. There is a lake, which is the water source for Beverly and the area. On Saturday mornings, I used to walk the edge of the lake collecting arrowheads. So it was from childhood on that I had an interest in those that were here first. I think that of all the things we have custody of and are responsible foreven the Charters of Freedomthe Indian treaties are the most valuable documents in terms of reading the original language and the government promises, and realizing what was never delivered. I have had opportunities, as members of tribal elders or tribal lawyers have come to visit, to join them in the vault as they experience the same things.

Indian relics (mostly arrowheads) found on the Enchanted Mesa, June 22, 1898. (National Archives Identifier 520076)

His interest has continued to grow since coming to work as the Archivist of the United States, along with his interest in history in general because, “I think the most exciting thing about history is it continues to be rewritten. It’s something each new generation rediscovers. Every new discovery in our records and collections enhances our understanding of what we know about our history. It’s not boring and static, it’s really dynamic.”

Pick up a copy of the book to read for yourself why Ferriero and many others are so intrigued by the mystery and horror of the Osage Indian Murders.

Read Keith Donohue’s interview in the fall issue of Prologue: David Grann: Killers of the Flower Moon.

3 thoughts on “Researching the Osage Murders

  1. I live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The majority of Americans have no clue of the true history. I wrote a book called “Her Story” which deals with the other side of the Battle of the Little Big Horn – a Lakota woman who loses her husband. I sometimes have to wonder who the real “savages” are!

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