Chronicle 1, Part 4: Underground Reservation—5: The Devil’s Disciples

4. Underground Reservation

This chapter shifts backward in time to explain how the Osage came to be wealthy and how they ended up in this part of Oklahoma. Until the arrival of European settlers, the Osage had laid claim to territory that spanned the area between Missouri and Kansas, reaching as far west as the Rockies. But, after the young United States acquired much of this territory in the Louisiana Purchase, the Osage were soon forced to move. Although President Thomas Jefferson promised that he would stand as a father to them, they first were made to relinquish their land between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers and, later, nearly one hundred million acres of their other ancestral lands. When Mollie was born, the tribe lived on a small parcel of land in today’s southeastern Kansas. 

When Mollie’s father, Ne-kah-e-se-y, was a young man, he wore traditional Osage garments and defended the tribe in battle. As a young woman, Lizzie harvested corn and gathered firewood. Twice a year, they relocated with the rest of the tribe to hunt buffalo, a sacred activity. Every part of the animal was revered and carefully utilized. Americans continued to move westward, however, encroaching on the Osage’s remaining land. Some impatient opportunists even took the land, murdering Osage families even after the Native Americans agreed to sell.  

The ousted Osage purchased land from the Cherokees, selecting an area that appeared unfit for cultivation, hoping it would deter white Americans from wanting it. Lizzie and Ne-kah-e-se-y, who married in 1874, settled on this land with other members of the dwindling tribe. Between the dwindling buffalo population and the fact that the U.S. government paid them in rations, not specie, the Osage experienced hunger and deprivation. A delegation won concessions from the government, but it was increasingly difficult for the tribe to retain their culture. New requirements forced the tribe’s children, including Mollie, to attend school, where they learned English and American culture. At the same time, settlers arrived on this land too, putting further pressure on the Osage.  

In the 1890s, the U.S. government pressured the Osage to embrace an allotment model, which would divide their shared land into individually owned parcels and would grant one to each tribal member. The parceled real estate could be bought and sold. Similar arrangements forced on other tribes resulted in violence and Native exclusion. But, unlike most Native American tribes, the Osage had purchased this land, which enabled multilingual Osage chief James Bigheart and lawyer John Palmer, a man of Sioux and white heritage married to an Osage woman,  to delay the allotment. This allowed them to negotiate favorable terms for the Osage with an increasingly demanding United States government. Their contract granted enduring rights to everything under the land, added because, unbeknownst to the U.S. negotiators, oil had been discovered. Under the agreement, each person on the tribal roll received headrights, which could not be sold. The Osage leased lots to various wildcatters, who came to the territory to make their fortunes. Many white adventurers got rich, but others were bankrupted. The Osage profited either way. 

5. The Devil’s Disciples 

Mollie’s family offers a reward for information into the deaths of Anna and Lizzie. Following Hale’s advice, the Burkharts also hire a private investigator. Because law enforcement was uneven across the United States, private eyes were common, although, viewed with suspicion. Hale hires a man named Pike. Mollie and Ernest urge the guardians of Anna’s estate to follow suit. Guardianship was an arrangement forced on the Osage by the U.S. government. Any Native American deemed unable, or “incompetent,” to manage their affairs was assigned a guardian by the Office of Indian Affairs. Usually prominent white citizens, the guardian controlled all financial decisions. Scott Mathis, Anna’s and Lizzie’s guardian, also hires detectives. The detectives examine every aspect of Anna’s final days, interviewing witnesses and checking her phone records. They determine she was home at 8:30 the evening she disappeared, but also discover that someone paid for the call log to be changed. Various theories circulate, but nothing comes of the investigations, and, after nine months, the murder seems unlikely to be solved. 

In February 1922, William Stepson dies of poisoning, as do two other members of the Osage tribe. Other suspicious deaths encourage the Osage to ask Barney McBride, a white oilman, to intercede for them. His marriage to a Creek woman meant the Osage trusted him. He goes to Washington, D.C., to request aid from the federal authorities but never makes the request because his body is found in Maryland the morning after he arrives.  


The history of the Osage cycles between accommodation and betrayal, as they struggle to maintain a friendship with the powerful Americans. Unlike other Native American tribes, however, the Osage learn quickly that they must retain as much power as possible when negotiating with the United States. They decide to purchase their territory when they relocate a third time, perhaps understanding that the American preference for private property could offer them modest protection from the nation’s endless desire for land. When they are able to delay land allotment and to include specific provisions in their arrangements, their earlier decision proves to be a good one. The tribe manages to retain all rights to the reservation underneath the reservation, and thus to the oil it contains. Although many of the older members of the tribe believed the oil was not a blessing, it brought great wealth and comfort. That it also was a force for further assimilation to American culture is true, though, for the Osage had previously organized their lives around the annual buffalo hunt, not large mansions and fancy cars. 

The oil created new connections between the indigenous people and white wildcatters, hoping to strike it rich. Much like the California Gold Rush which began in 1848, the discovery of oil attracted a wide array of people, some less scrupulous than others. The vast sums also engendered relationships of guardianship, forced on the Osage by the U.S. government. In principle, these relationships were intended to protect Native American individuals from fraud because a prominent white person would manage their financial affairs. The funds, largely held in trust, would be protected. But this system assumed that the people in charge of the trusts could be trusted—and the Reign of Terror, a decade when members of the Osage community were systematically killed for their money, made clear that this was very seldom true. The system of financial trusts provides a further way of considering the book’s core engagement with the problem of trust between persons. But even without financial mismanagement, there was little in the way of trust between people in Osage County, especially after other people, including white people, were found dead under suspicious circumstances. If even a prominent white businessman, who was willing to speak up for the tribe in Washington, D.C., was not safe, then it was unlikely that anyone could be. 

The key theme binding these chapters together is the ongoing difficulty the Osage have in their negotiations with white Americans, especially representatives of the U.S. government. Through broken promises, forced assimilation, changing requirements, and the regular pressure to renegotiate treaties that had become less favorable over the years to the United States, the Osage were forced to accommodate the rapacious needs of white settlers.