The Osage Murders: The True Story Behind “Killers Of The Flower Moon”
The search for the osage nation’s lost oil wealth. The Osage Murders: The True Story Behind “Killers Of The Flower Moon”
We start with a list published in a local Oklahoma newspaper sheds light on who ended up with a tribal nation’s mineral rights.
Osage County, Oklahoma, is as big as some US states. It’s nearly 1.5 million acres, much of it covered in bluestem grass perfect for grazing cattle. More than a century ago, the Osage Nation held title to the land.
Today, a lot of the county is owned by non-Osages. There’s a Nature Conservancy prairie preserve and thousands of acres owned by Farmland Reserve, an affiliate of the Mormon Church. But of all the landowners in Osage County, one extended family is the biggest.
Its members have been ranching here for generations. The family name is associated with Oklahoma state politics and a TV show on the Food Network. The story of the family’s rise is the story of how US policies allowed White settlers to build tremendous wealth off land and minerals once owned by the Osage.
To understand how this Oklahoma land empire came to be, you have to start in 1906.
What Are Headrights?
In the early 1900s, the Osage Nation, which bought this land after leaving its Kansas reservation, was undergoing tremendous change. The US had dismantled its government. Now, the federal government wanted to take the land out of the collective ownership of the Osage Nation and parcel it out to Osage individuals — a policy known as allotment.
Many Osage leaders opposed the move, seeing the disastrous effects on other tribal nations. The individual parcels would be small and scattered; one chief argued against it by pointing to White farmers nearby who had tried and failed to farm 160-acre tracts. But Oklahoma statehood was coming.
Allotment seemed inevitable. Osage Chief James Bigheart reached an agreement with the federal government: The Nation would accept allotment but retain ownership of the mineral rights beneath its land. Those rights were put in a trust managed by the federal government, whose role as trustee obligated it to safeguard the Osage beneficiaries’ financial interests.
Each person on a roll of Osages at the time received a share, which came to be called a headright. Every three months, each person who had a headright received a portion of the money from oil and gas drilling in Osage County.
When oil production exploded a decade later, those headrights became extremely valuable. Tales of Osage wealth swept the country, many of them exaggerated. But that wealth — and that attention — also brought tragedy. Outsiders flocked to Osage County, plotting ways to get the money for themselves.
Dozens of Osages were murdered in widespread schemes to get their headrights, a years-long criminal conspiracy often referred to as the Reign of Terror. Headrights left Osage hands in other ways, too — some via fraud and deceit, others through sales, charitable donations and bequests — that many Osage leaders say should never have been allowed by the US.
In the decades since, Osage citizens have tried to figure out who got their headrights — and how. The answer was a secret, closely guarded by the trust’s overseer, the US government.
Who Has A Headright?
When a local paper, the Bigheart Times, published the full list of non-Osage headright owners in 2009, it ripped open old wounds. More than a quarter of headrights were now held outside Osage hands. Almost 2,000 non-Osage people, companies and organizations held headrights or some fraction of one.
Among those names was one known throughout Osage County: Drummond.
The Drummonds have been in Oklahoma since before it was a state. Their expansive ranching empire here exists on land once owned by the Osage Nation and, after allotment, by Osage citizens. If you add up land held by dozens of Drummond entities and individuals, the extended family together makes up nearly 9% of the county.
That land is currently worth at least $275 million, according to a Bloomberg estimate based on Osage County agricultural land transactions compiled by Oklahoma State University, as well as conversations with brokers and appraisers familiar with the land.
The Drummond Legacy Started With a Trading
This story starts with a question: Did the Drummonds have headrights? And if not, how did they amass this much land? But the story led someplace else — into an exploration of an entire system, made possible by federal laws and rules, that helped move wealth out of Native hands and into White ones. And how the Osage Nation is working to reverse decades of land loss.
The Drummond Legacy Started With A Trading Post
The Hominy Trading Company was the “Super Walmart” of the town. But many Osages suspected they weren’t getting a fair price.
Ask just about anyone how the Drummond family got its start in Osage County, and you’ll hear about the store.
In the late 1880s, Frederick Drummond moved to the Osage Reservation and secured an important document that set his family on a path toward wealth and influence: a license from the US government to sell goods to Osages.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Frederick and his wife, Addie, moved the family from Pawhuska to Hominy, where he took over the Hominy Trading Company. One descendant would later refer to it as the “Super Walmart” of the time, more like a department store than a simple trading post. The Hominy Trading Company sold hardware, high-end clothing and farming supplies.
The three Drummond boys — Fred Gentner, Cecil and A.A. “Jack” Drummond — grew up around the business. According to Jack, he and Cecil were more drawn to fishing and camping than the ins and outs of the store. But Fred Gentner was a natural trader. “Cecil and I were outside all the time, and Gentner, he was always up there in that store,” Jack Drummond recalled in decades-old interview recordings collected for his biography.
After their father died in 1913, Fred Gentner Drummond took a more active role at the Hominy Trading Company. Jack worked there for a time, too. In the tapes, he explains the kind of environment in which they operated. Just take the silk shirts he sold to Osage men at a hefty markup.
Jack tells his biographer that he was simply charging top dollar for something his customers wanted. But many Osage families long suspected that they were paying more than White customers for the same goods. Several families recalled “the Osage Price” they were charged at the Hominy Trading Company — later known as the Pioneer Store — and other stores in Osage County. In this episode, you’ll hear how one family put its suspicions to the test.
But the price tags on silk shirts and groceries were only the beginning of how the store provided financial leverage for the Drummond brothers. Many Osages became indebted to the store, in part because of higher prices, but also because the US government later limited access to their own money.
These were the early days of credit for much of the country, but merchants saw good borrowers in their Osage customers, who had big accounts held with the US government.
Some of the biggest debts showed up when an Osage individual died. That’s because the Hominy Trading Company offered undertaking and funeral services, too. This wasn’t unusual for Osage County merchants at the time, but the bills for Osage funerals were so high that they got the attention of lawmakers in Washington.
One bill was $3,182.67. Another was $2,368.90. In some cases, a funeral could cost more than $9,000, the equivalent of more than $100,000 today. In Congressional testimony from 1924, lawmakers expressed their surprise at the costs.
When an Osage estate owed money to the Hominy Trading Company and other creditors, those debts would be reviewed and paid out by an estate administrator — a role that Fred Gentner Drummond himself performed for at least 28 Osage individuals. That meant he was in the position to present bills from his family’s store and then approve their payment. It was one example of how US policies for handling Osage affairs put White men in multiple positions of power.
Forgotten Tapes Give Clue To Missing Osage Mineral Stake
We uncover the untold stories from just a fraction of one Osage headright share.
The list of non-Osage headright holders that surfaced in 2009 didn’t include a vital detail: the number or fraction of shares held by each. That information was considered private by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. But a new list obtained through a public records request provides a partial look — the names and headright shares of certain non-Osage entities, including universities, churches, companies and trusts.
One of those organizations is Hissom Memorial Center, a name that’s attracted particular scrutiny because it was shut down nearly 30 years ago after staff were accused of abusing the patients who lived there. According to BIA records, Hissom holds a little over a third of a share.
The list also includes the University of Oklahoma, which says it funds a scholarship for Osage students with proceeds from its 1.73 headrights. And the BIA’s documents attached a number to one of the trusts that appeared on an earlier list published by a local newspaper, the Bigheart Times. The Alfred A. Drummond Trust, held on behalf of family members, has half a share.
Where did that half share come from? A biography of Alfred A. “Jack” Drummond, one of the earliest Drummonds in Osage County, offers the first clue and points to dozens of interview tapes from the 1970s and ’80s.
Those tapes, along with archival records, reveal the Osage family that originally owned the share, and how a White man named O.V. Pope got it from them — only to sell it almost immediately to Jack for the equivalent of roughly $340,000 in today’s dollars. In the years since Jack bought it, that share has paid out about $1.7 million when adjusted for inflation.
We hear from a beneficiary of the trust, who says he doesn’t have control over it but that the return from this headright fraction has been fairly modest over the years.
Annual Headright Payments
Of the 2,229 headrights in the Osage Mineral Estate, more than 500 are now in non-Osage hands. Following the story of just a fraction of one reveals the personal and financial cost of such wealth transfers. How many others are out there?
How One Osage Man Took On His Guardians
Orphaned as a boy, Myron Bangs Jr. was under the guardianship of Drummond brothers for more than a decade. In episode four, hear about the alarms he raised to the US government and the paper trail he left behind.
The Hominy Trading Company wasn’t the only way the Drummond brothers profited off Osage wealth. The US government had deemed Osages and other Native Americans incompetent, which meant they needed “guardians” to be put in charge of their financial affairs.
This system was billed as a way to protect Native American wealth from being swindled or squandered. But many times, guardians were in on the very schemes they were supposed to prevent.
In the 1920s, the US government brought at least 20 lawsuits on behalf of Osage wards, alleging misdeeds by their guardians; these cases were settled without trial. Guardianship files in the local courthouse are kept under seal.
But one Osage man left behind a vivid look into the practice, thanks to the years he spent raising alarms about how his land and money were being managed. His name was Myron Bangs Jr. His guardians were Drummonds.
Bangs was educated. He could fly an airplane and write searing letters to US officials. But in the eyes of the law he was incompetent, simply for being Osage. For more than 15 years starting in 1918, his finances were controlled by his guardians — first, Cecil Drummond, and later, Fred Gentner Drummond.
Bangs didn’t trust his guardians. At one point, he even wrote the commissioner of Indian Affairs. “We are writing to you personally because we cannot get action elsewhere,” he said in a 1934 letter.
Later that year, he took matters into his own hands. He hired a lawyer named Paul Comstock and enlisted a team of accountants to audit his affairs. They came back with a five-page report, full of inconsistencies they encountered when combing through his finances. In 1935, Fred Gentner resigned.
But the matter didn’t drop. Six years later, the US brought a case against Fred Gentner Drummond and his two brothers, accusing them of defrauding Bangs while they were supposed to be protecting his financial interests.
What a federal judge found, though, was something else entirely. The judge said the Drummond brothers were actually working to help Bangs after he was orphaned at a young age, using the guardianship to shield his family’s land from the man who married his mother just months before she died.
A relative recalls Bangs and his fight against an unfair system. And Gentner Drummond, the Republican candidate for Oklahoma attorney general, discusses his support for tribal sovereignty and his family’s long history in Osage County, where he says they were respected members of the community and helped their Osage neighbors in the ways that were available at the time.
Osage Nation’s Massive Oil Estate May Get New US Protections
Proposal follows decades of concerns, lawsuits over federal management of 1.5-million-acre mineral estate the US holds in trust for Osage.
The federal government is proposing new rules to protect a sprawling collection of oil and gas rights belonging to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma after decades of criticism that US authorities have mismanaged the estate.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs will weigh increasing the amount of money oil and gas producers put up in the form of bonds, a move the agency said would better protect the Osage Nation when companies default.
It also proposes updating methods for valuing oil and gas production to prevent price manipulation and “ensure that the Osage Nation receives the full value of its oil and gas,” according to a statement Thursday.
“The federal government has a trust responsibility to administer the Osage Mineral Estate,” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. “These proposed revisions secure this special trust asset of the Osage Nation for generations to come through accountability and best industry practices.”
The nearly 1.5-million-acre Osage Mineral Estate is held in trust on behalf of the Osage Nation, a federally recognized tribe in northern Oklahoma. In 1906, the mineral estate was divided into 2,229 shares, which later became known as headrights. Each person on a roll of Osage citizens at the time received a share.
The bureau’s proposal comes four months after Bloomberg News aired “In Trust,” a podcast series that raised new questions about the federal government’s handling of the trust relationship with the Osage Nation. As part of that series, Bloomberg in September published a partial list of non-Osage headright holders obtained via a public records request.
The list included oil companies, churches, trusts and universities, as well as a nonprofit that closed down nearly three decades ago. In that case, Bloomberg determined the royalty payments had been accumulating in an interest-bearing Individual Indian Money, or IIM, account held by the Interior Department since 2012 while the agency determines the rightful owner or owners. It’s unclear where that money went from 1994 to 2012.
For decades, many Osage headright holders have expressed concern over the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ management of the mineral estate.
In 2011, the federal government agreed to pay $380 million to settle the Osage Nation’s allegations that the US had breached its fiduciary duty by failing to get the best possible price for the oil produced from the mineral estate.
Three years later, the Interior Department’s inspector general found fundamental and systemic flaws in how the bureau’s Osage Agency oversaw the mineral estate, flagging shortcomings in its management of data, accounting and the environmental effects of drilling. A separate lawsuit, brought 20 years ago by a group of individual headright holders, seeks a full accounting of the funds managed by the federal government.
Everett Waller, chairman of the Osage Minerals Council, said he wants the proposed rules to speed up oil and gas permitting.
“These cannot be more cumbersome,” he said by phone Thursday. “The companies can easily go to counties next door and get their permits in days.”
Waller said the permitting slowdown has impacted production, which in turn has caused headright payments to take a hit.
“Their checks are going down, but their monthly bills are getting to where they can’t pay them,” he said. “It’s a livelihood that they need.”
It’s an issue Deb Haaland, who was appointed Secretary of the Interior nearly two years ago, has had to weigh alongside her commitment to environmental protection. Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a presidential cabinet secretary, was specifically asked about the Osage Mineral Estate in her confirmation hearing, when Oklahoma Senator James Lankford criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a permitting slowdown in Osage County.
Last year, a single headright received $11,980, a steep drop from $40,780 a decade earlier.
Headrights became highly fractionated as shares were passed down to descendants. Roughly a quarter of shares are currently held by non-Osages. The Osage Nation is seeking federal legislation to make it easier for non-Osage headright holders to return their shares to the tribe. A draft of the proposed legislation is currently under review by Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas, who has agreed to sponsor the bill.
The Interior Department made its last substantive update to Osage oil and gas leasing regulations in 1974, it said Thursday. The agency will meet with stakeholders about its proposed changes and accept public comments through March 17, it said.