November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
The discovery of oil has changed the financial prospects for many people over the years. Wildcatters, drillers, and oil executives clamor with joy when a gusher of oil shoots up from the ground. In the late 19th century, the Osage Nation were the surprise recipients of a vast oil and mineral deposit discovered on their reservation. Enterprising oilmen received drilling rights from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), with the stipulation that the Osage Nation received a 10 percent royalty on all sales.
By 1906 the Osage had negotiated another deal with oil companies and the federal government to retain their headrights on any mineral and oil deposits within the reservation. They were now some of the richest people in North America, earning approximately 10 million to 30 million dollars a year. All this “black gold,” however, was a curse rather than a blessing to the reservation since, within a short amount of time, the mysterious deaths began.
A contributing factor to the murders and terrorizing acts against the Osage was the implementation of the federal guardianship system. On March 3, 1921, Congress passed a law requiring the Osage to pass a measure of competency proving they could manage their funds responsibly. If they couldn’t, they would be appointed a guardian until a legal age. This immediately opened the door for con artists, unscrupulous businessmen, and corrupt lawyers and bankers to siphon off funds from annual royalties. Several Osage people were swindled out of their individual headrights without knowing the full value of their contracts. Many Whites even married their way into rich Osage families to exert their legal rights as spouses and obtain guardianship that way.
Something far more sinister was lurking in the shadows behind shady con artists and dishonest attorneys. As with any appointed guardianship, if the ward died before the legal age of competency, the guardian could petition to inherit their estate. As the 1920s progressed, dead bodies began turning up on the Oklahoma prairie. Detectives and doctors ruled them as suicides or alcohol poisoning, but never considered opening a murder investigation.
In 1925 the Osage Nation petitioned the FBI to investigate the crimes and uncover who was behind the conspiracy. The new Director of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, became wholeheartedly interested in the case and dispatched a seasoned Texas lawman, Tom White, to Oklahoma with a team of private investigators and police detectives. White began an infiltration operation, telling his team to assume new identities and take up local trades. This would allow them to ingratiate themselves with the locals and help dig up any leads on who was responsible for the Osage deaths.
White and his officers heard one name repeated constantly: William Hale. Hale was a local rancher and businessman—a mover and shaker in the Osage Hills region. His political and business connections along with his personal wealth made him influential, but also a dangerous personality to cross. When trying to purchase the headrights of Henry Roan, a wealthy Indian, he forged a life insurance policy for $25,000 to cover funds he had loaned to Roan over the years.
On February 6, 1923, Roan was found dead. While no official investigation was carried out at the time, White and his team uncovered the fraudulent insurance policy and ultimately used this as the means to arrest Hale and co-conspirators. Because the murder occurred on a reservation, it constituted a federal indictment.
For nearly seven years, the Osage tribe had lived in a near constant state of fear for their lives. On January 9, 1926, William Hale and a co-conspirator, John Ramsey, were indicted on federal charges for the murder of Henry Roan. The trial revealed an intricate conspiracy of manipulation, deceit, and blackmail to coerce gangsters and family members into killing the Osage.
White’s team relied heavily on confessions from those who claimed Hale ordered them to murder specific persons and cover their tracks. A nephew, Ernest Burkhart, who was married to Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman with substantial wealth, initially entered a not guilty plea. His sister-in-law, Anna, was an early victim in the murder spree, and Mollie struggled for some justice over the years.
Two months into the trial, Ernest did something shocking; he rescinded his not guilty plea and entered a guilty one. He confessed that his uncle William Hale masterminded the entire conspiracy. William Hale, the “King of the Osage Hills,” was found guilty for conspiracy to commit murder and was transferred to Leavenworth Prison. Ironically, Tom White, the leading FBI agent on the Osage murders, was appointed Leavenworth’s new warden when Hale arrived to serve his sentence.
Nearly 60 people were killed on the Osage reservation, and some of those murders are still unsolved. Hale, Ramsay, and all other co-conspirators are long since dead, but the tragedy remains in northern Oklahoma. The memories are visible today as families continue to cope with the trauma of lost relatives and have never received justice. Just as sudden wealth brought riches and a higher quality of life, it brought the darker side of human greed and malice.
For full access to FBI files on the Osage Indian murders, visit the FBI Records Vault.
For more information read the Pieces of History post, Researching the Osage Murders.