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The Reign of Terror

William K. Hale
William K. Hale

The Reign of Terror was a frightful time for the Osage people. It began in the early 1920s, a time that should have been a prosperous one. The oil boom was in full swing, and the Osage people were prosperous due to ownership of mineral rights. Under the Osage Allotment Act of 1906, subsurface minerals within the Osage Nation Reservation were held in trust by the U.S. government, but were tribally-owned. Osage mineral lease royalties were paid to the tribe, which then distributed it equally to each allottee. This equal share was called a headright. A headright was hereditary, passing to the immediate legal heir of the deceased allottee. Non-Osages were able to inherit an Osage headright, and this was the motive for the Reign of Terror.

Between 1920 and 1925 there were more than 60 mysterious or unsolved murders in Osage County, all dealing with Osage headright holders. But with the arrest of William K. Hale it all stopped.

At the time Hale, originally from Texas, was considered to one of the most prominent citizens of the area. Hale was even the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills.” He was a wealthy rancher with several banking and business interests throughout Osage County. Hale, along with his accomplices, Ernest Burkhart, John Ramsey, and several others, were allegedly tied to more than 20 killings. But ultimately their devious activity would catch up with them. While being investigated for the murder of Henry Roan, Burkhart tied Hale and Ramsey to the murder of Roan and confessed to the murder of William E. Smith. Hale and Ramsey were later convicted of Roan’s murder, and Burkhart accepted a plea deal for the murder of Smith.

Map of some of the Osage murders
Map of some of the Osage murders

Hale was sentenced to life in prison on January 27, 1929, and served only 18 years of his sentence before being paroled in 1947. Burkhart and Ramsey also received life sentences, and both were also paroled in 1947. Burkhart was eventually pardoned by Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon in 1965. Hale lived to be 87 and is buried in Wichita, Kansas.

In 1925, to prevent another Reign of Terror, the United States Congress passed a law prohibiting non-Osages from inheriting headrights of tribal members possessing more than one-half Osage blood.

In 2017, New Yorker staff writer David Grann published Killers of the Flower Moon about the Osage Murders. It has gone on to become an award-winning book, and is currently being adapted to a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.