Copyright Osage Nation
Killers of the Flower Moon is at once a historical retelling of the Osage Oil Boom, a murder mystery, and the genesis story of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation. Based on thousands of pages of unpublished FBI reports, as well as voluminous official government documents and case records, David Grann’s meticulously researched tale details the gruesome machinations of an era where millionaire Native Americans were killed for their oil riches by the most visible members of white society in a deceptive, cunning, and often brutal manner. Most fascinating to the oil and gas practitioner will be Grann’s history of the Osage “underground reservation,” and the booming oil and gas industry during this time.
The Osage Nation (“People of the Middle Waters”) is a Midwestern Siouan-speaking Native American tribe of the Great Plains. In the early twentieth century, the Osage reserved all minerals to the tribe when the federal government forced the allotment system on Indian lands in anticipation of admission of Oklahoma to the Union. As a result, each Osage received a “headright” in the mineral trust underlying all of Osage County, Oklahoma, eventually making the tribe extremely wealthy. Headrights could not be sold, but they could pass via descent and distribution, a distinction that would soon have murderous consequences. In the more colorful portions of the book, titans of the oil and gas industry, such as Harry Sinclair (Sinclair Oil), Frank Phillips (Phillips 66), J. P. Getty (Getty Oil), and numerous others, make appearances as they vie for oil and gas rights at the quarterly Bureau of Indian Affairs lease auctions held in downtown Pawhuska (the capital of the Osage Nation), beneath the “million-dollar elm” where 160-acre leases routinely sold for over one-million dollars.
The murders detailed in the book are gruesome, and include several poisonings, point-blank execution style shootings, and one bombing. The who-dunnit element is limited in Grann’s novel as he focuses his pacing on unraveling the full extent of the conspiracy behind the murders instead of on unmasking individual actors. The result is a compelling and historical tale of wealth and greed that exceedingly becomes more and more unnerving as details emerge that family members of the Osage were involved in the premeditated murders and a cover-up of epic proportions. Grann’s narrative reveals the white society of Osage County, including the legal, medical, law enforcement, and judicial professions, as actively complicit participants in the murders and conspiracy. Most shocking is the meticulously calculated order of the murders, which were exacted to vest the largest percentage of headrights in one person prior to their death.
The portrait of the early Federal Bureau of Investigation, which Grann ties to the history of the private eye in America, is equally fascinating. The book chronicles J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to power as a meticulous bureaucrat carefully constructing an empire precariously based on the success or failure of his work on the Osage murders. To ensure success, Hoover relied on more experienced, rough and tumble agents, including the legendary former Texas Ranger, Tom White. White’s leadership of his undercover team through a staggering maze of obstruction of justice including jury tampering, witness execution, and bribery, is exemplary. Though successful in their pursuit, the federal investigators ultimately faced the brutal reality that a white jury was unlikely to convict a white man of killing an Indian. The manner of resolution of the court cases is entirely unexpected.
“Quite simply, this is a remarkable book, by a remarkable author—an exhumation of a shockingly brutal series of historical murders, that I for one knew nothing about. Utterly original; completely compelling.”
—Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author
The New York Times’ review can be found HERE.
Information on headrights and the mineral trust as explained by the Osage Nation can be found HERE.
Link to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Osage Agency” can be found HERE.