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

Mollie Burkhart (second from right) lost all three of her sisters under suspicious circumstances. Rita Smith (left) died in an explosion, Anna Brown (second from left) was shot in the head and Minnie Smith (right) died of what doctors referred to as a “peculiar wasting illness.”

The Osage National Museum/Courtesy of Doubleday

On how far the conspirators went to cover up their crimes

Almost anyone who tried to investigate the killings — or at least stop them in the area — they, too, were killed. One attorney tried to gather evidence and one day he was thrown off a speeding train and all the evidence that he had gathered had disappeared. Another time, an oilman had traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to get help. … He checked into a boarding house in Washington, D.C. … He was then found the next day stripped naked. He had been stabbed more than 20 times; his head had been beaten in. The Washington Post at the time said what everyone at that point knew, which was there was a conspiracy to kill rich Indians.

On how authorities reacted to the deaths

It’s really important to understand back then that there was so much lawlessness. That was one of the things that shocked me when I began researching the story, that even in the 1920s much of America remained a country that was not fully rooted in its laws. Its legal institutions were very fragile; there was enormous corruption, particularly in this era and in this area. And the conspirators were able to pay off lawmen, they were able to pay off prosecutors. There was so much prejudice that these crimes were neglected.

Mollie Burkhart beseeched the authorities to try to investigate, to get help, but because of prejudice they often ignored the crimes. And she issued money for a reward, she hired private investigators, but the crimes for years remained unsolved, and the body count continued to increase. By 1924 there were at least 24 murders alone. …

Finally, the Osage, in desperation, they issued a resolution, a tribal resolution, beseeching the federal authorities to help. And finally a then-very obscure branch of the Justice Department intervened. It was known as the Bureau of Investigation and it was what … would later be renamed the FBI.

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