The discovery of oil transformed communities and entire states in the closing years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana saw their economies transform overnight with the discovery of oil. For the Osage of Northeast Oklahoma, they saw their impoverished, dilapidated reservation transformed into one of the richest communities in Oklahoma almost overnight. It attracted great jealousy and then hatred and then murder. In the end, it took one former Texas Ranger, Thomas White, to help solve the case.
When the Osage were forced onto the reservations, the lands that once stretched from almost to the Mississippi River in Arkansas to Central Kansas were whittled down to a small area of North-Central Oklahoma. The land was poor, but the Osage were determined to hold onto it. As early as 1894, oil was suspected to lay far beneath the surface of the Osage reservation, with the first successful well dug in 1897. In 1907, the Osage tribe managed to secure the mineral rights to all the lands on their reservation. The timing was fortunate as the wells only became more successful.
For the Osage community, now down to just over 2,200 members, the oil was like a dream come true. In 1923, more than $30 million of oil was produced, or about $450 million in 2019 dollars. After generations of lost lands and an almost relentless stream of misfortunes, the Osages now saw their luck change. With profits distributed among the tribe every three months, families were building mansions and hiring servants. The quickly became one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.
With the money, the knives came out. The Osage were besieged with an array of con artists and thieves. Congress passed legislation insisting that white managers approve each purchase by each Osage individual. Administrators jealous of the Osage fortunes sold them goods at horribly inflated rates and stole an estimated $8 million from them. And in the midst of this came the deaths.
Members of the tribe began to disappear. Bodies were found in ravines, shot or mutilated. Others died of sudden, mysterious illnesses. Thirteen of these deaths occurred between 1921 and 1923. Osage County Sheriff’s Department refused to investigate. The state police did no better. The deaths only accelerated. Forty-seven more people died in the next two years.
Mollie Burkhart watched her entire family die. In 1921, her sister was found murdered. Her mother died of poisoning a month later, followed by her father. In 1923, her sister’s house exploded, killing her sister, her husband and their maid.
In 1925, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover decided to intervene. He sent one of his agents for the new agency, Thomas Bruce White, to solve the crimes. White was born in Oak Hill, near Austin, in 1881. He briefly attended Georgetown’s Southwestern University at the turn of the century and joined the Texas Rangers. He began working for the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad in 1909 as a special investigator for crimes against the railroad in West Texas. He developed a reputation as a fair lawman and a solid investigator before he joined the federal government.
White went to Oklahoma and put together an undercover team that included a Native American and two others, with each posing either as ranch hands or salesmen. Within a matter of weeks, White traced the money back to several suspects. In the case of Burkhart’s family, Mollie Burkhart’s new husband, Ernest Burkhart, a white man, was arrested for the murders.
Burkhart was convicted but soon turned state’s evidence and pointed to a conspiracy headed up by his uncle, rancher William Hale. Hale, a Texas native who built a ranching empire and petty theft ring in the area, was also convicted of one murder though he was suspected of many others. However, several suspects connected to Hale died mysteriously before the trial.
It was clear that a series of conspiracies existed to destroy the Osage and steal the oil money, but White was stopped by federal officials before he could dig further. The Osage Murders came to an end because of Agent White and his team, but only a handful had been solved. White’s work boosted the reputation of the FBI, but the final insult to the Osage came when Hoover presented the Osage tribe with a bill for $20,000 for the investigation, something no victim or group has ever had to pay. Congress moved to strengthen the Osage mineral rights and hereditary rights in a new 1925 law.
White spent the next phase of his life working directly with prisoners. He became the warden at Ft. Leavenworth in 1926. In 1932, he became warden of the La Tuna federal penitentiary near El Paso. At the age of 70, in 1951, he began serving on the Board of Pardons and Paroles. He retired for good in 1957 and died in 1971 at age 90.
The Osage continued to be haunted by the legacy of the murders. Justice was never complete, answers were never satisfactory, and the community continued to face exploitation. Hale was eventually released, and Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon pardoned Burkhart in 1965. Well into the 1990s, new investigations were being conducted into many of the deaths. The Osage also charged the Department of the Interior with mismanagement of the tribal trust fund from the oil rights. The federal government settled with the Osage for $380 million in 2011.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.