In The 1920s, A Community Conspired To Kill Native Americans For Their Oil Money

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Ernest and Mollie Burkhart married in 1917. Unbeknownst to Mollie, a member of the Osage tribe, the marriage was part of a larger plot to steal her family’s oil wealth.

Generations ago, the American Indian Osage tribe was compelled to move. Not for the first time, white settlers pushed them off their land in the 1800s. They made their new home in a rocky, infertile area in northeast Oklahoma in hopes that settlers would finally leave them alone.

As it turned out, the land they had chosen was rich in oil, and in the early 20th century, members of the tribe became spectacularly wealthy. They bought cars and built mansions; they made so much oil money that the government began appointing white guardians to “help” them spend it. And then Osage members started turning up dead.

In his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann describes how white people in the area conspired to kill Osage members in order steal their oil wealth, which could only be passed on through inheritance. “This was a culture of complicity,” he says, “and it was allowed to go on for so long because so many people were part of the plot. You had lawmen, you had prosecutors, you had the reporters who wouldn’t cover it. You had oilmen who wouldn’t speak out. You had morticians who would cover up the murders when they buried the body. You had doctors who helped give poison to people.”


Interview Highlights

On how the conspiracy worked

What makes these crimes so sinister is that it involved marrying into families. It involved a level of calculation and a level of betraying the very people you pretended to love. And the way these murders would take place is that people would marry into the families and then begin to kill each member of the family. … That’s exactly what happened to [Osage woman Mollie Burkhart]. She had married a white man, and his uncle was the most powerful settler in the area. He was known as the King of the Osage Hills … and he had orchestrated a very sinister plot played out over years where he directed his nephew, who had married Mollie Burkhart, to marry her so that he could then begin to kill the family members one by one and siphon off all the wealth.

On how Mollie Burkhart’s family was killed

One day in 1921, her older sister disappeared and Mollie looked everywhere for her and couldn’t find her. And about a week later, her body was found essentially in a ravine, decomposed. She’d been shot in the back of the head.

Then just a few weeks later, Mollie’s mother began to grow increasingly sick. She seemed to be almost disappearing, withering in front of her. And within two months she, too, had died. And evidence later suggested that she had been secretly poisoned.

Not long after that, Mollie was sleeping in her bed in her house with her white husband; they had a couple children. And she heard a loud explosion. She got up in panic and terror. … She had another sister who lived not far away, and in the area where her sister’s house was she could see almost this orange fire ball rising into the sky. It almost looked as if the sun had burst into the night. And her sister’s house had been blown up killing that sister as well as her sister’s husband and a servant who lived in that house.

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