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A Reign of Terror Against the Osage Nation (1926)

An oil boom in Oklahoma in the early 20th century brought both prosperity and violence to the Osage people. Legally, the tribe owned oil and minerals found within the Osage Nation Reservation. Profits from mining were paid to the tribe, which then distributed it equally to enrolled members. Members’ shares, or headrights, were hereditary and upon death would pass to any legal heirs, including non-Osage. From 1920-1925, Osage headright holders were victimized by whites eager to reap oil profits. More than 60 people were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances. This excerpt from an article in the New York Times described the impact of the oil boom and the violence that ensued until state and federal investigations resulted in the conviction of some of the murderers.

Seldom in the long history of the white man’s dubious dealings with the Indian has there been such a determined combination of craft and violence as that which witnesses before [a] Grand Jury described as having been employed against the Oklahoma wards of the United States, who, since the discovery of oil on their tribal lands in 1912, have been the unfortunate possessors of unaccustomed wealth. White men and women have married members of the wealthy tribe. Others have become beneficiaries of heavily insured Indians. The devices for transferring oil royalties into white hands have been infinite…

It began, this reign of terror, early in 1922, when the body of Anna Brown, a wealthy Osage Indian of Gray Horse, was found in a secluded canyon on Three Mile Creek east of Fairfax. There was a bullet hole in her skull...A few weeks later, Henry Roan, a cousin of Anna Brown, was killed. This created considerably more than passing interest, for it was recalled that the original estate of Anna Brown had been held by Lizzie Q. Brown, an old Indian woman, who died suddenly….Again and again the hand of death struck, quickly and effectively. None of the victims attacked ever was left alive, crippled or maimed, to tell the story. First it was one family, then another, but always death struck the wealthiest families of Indians and always a member who controlled a large share of fortune. 

…. One of the principal schemes practiced by the white men was the life insurance scheme. Few of the Indians had life insurance, but after the advent of wealth avaricious whites would get them drunk, sign them up for a policy, with the white man or some member of his family as beneficiary, and collect upon the Indian’s death….How many deaths were caused in this manner and never checked off on the “reign of terror” list will never be known…

Though the reign of terror apparently has ended, and farmers no longer Install electric light plants to keep a brilliant glow around their homes, the Osage Nation has fallen.

It now numbers only 200 full-blooded Osages on the rolls of the Indian agent at Pawhuska, although 2,200 estates, inherited by descendants who have married into other races, are still managed by the agent.

Source | "Courts End Osage Indian 'Reign of Terror.'" New York Times. January 17, 1926.
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | “A Reign of Terror Against the Osage Nation (1926),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 8, 2023,

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