This post describes one of the real historical mysteries discussed in our latest book,¬†History’s Mysteries. This book includes 40 unsolved mysteries from history. Students read a text, discuss and analyze, do research on their own, and then complete a serious of projects designed to help them figure out what they think happened and why. In the process, they use critical thinking skills, academic research and writing skills, and get caught up in a fascinating story of intrigue! Read about the Osage Indian Murders and download a free unit teaching the Osage Indian Murders to try in your classroom!


The Osage Indian Murders or The Reign of Terror

One of the America’s most devastating unsolved historical mysteries involved oil, corruption, intrigue, over 100 murders and helped give birth to the FBI. And chances are you never heard a word about it, until now!

The Osage Indian tribe, like many Native American tribes had been forced off their native land and sent to a reservation, travelling the Trail of Tears to Kansas. However in due time, the US government again wanted to force the Osage off this land so they could develop the Midwest.

A map of Oklahoma showing the locations of the Native American reservations in present day
A map of Oklahoma showing the locations of the Native American reservations in present day

Coming to Oklahoma

In 1870 the tribe decided to buy dry and rocky land in Oklahoma. Their reasoning was that no one would want this land. No one would force them off of it. Life in Oklahoma was indeed hard. So it seemed an ironic, but well-deserved, blessing when oil was discovered on Osage land in 1894. The tribe decided to give headrights, the right to own and profit off the land, to all landowners. They paid a percentage of profits from the oil to everyone living on the reservation. This helped to enrich the whole tribe.

The richest people in the US

And there was quite a bit to go around! Checks given out to each member three times a year grew from $100 to $1000 ($13,000 in today’s money) to even higher as more oil was discovered and drilled. In 1923, alone it is estimated the tribe earned $30 million. That is the equivalent of $400 million today, making the members of the tribe the richest people on Earth! Unfortunately, that kind of money can bring a lot of problems.

Among other things, America was in the middle of The Great Depression, so people were envious of the Osage (But admired the Rockefellers and Gettys and white oil barons)! Under the guise of protecting the Osage, the US Congress passed a law that each Osage (50% or more of ‘native blood’) needed a court-appointed guardian. These guardians were usually white outsiders and they had total control over the money. The looting began immediately. Dozens of guardians were charged with corruption, but settled outside of court. Millions of stolen dollars were held by the guardian system and not returned!

President Coolidge meeting with members of the Osage tribe in 1924
President Coolidge meeting with members of the Osage tribe in 1924

The Reign of Terror

 

Then the killing started! In short order, 18 Osage and 3 outsiders were found dead, many connected to the first victim, Anna Brown. Brown’s mother had died so ownership of her estate was in limbo! At first, authorities called the deaths accidental, but it soon became clear that they were not. Local and state officials could not solve the murders or the web of fraud surrounding them! Possible the police were in on some of the corruption themselves.

So the tribe reached out to a new federal law enforcement branch, the FBI. At the time, this agency was called the Bureau of Investigations. It had little power or prestige. Their undercover operation investigating the Osage Indian murders helped put them on the map. They uncovered a web of contracted killings designed to eliminate members of the Osage and get their money! But many murders were never solved!

Can your students pick up where the FBI left off?

Download our free unit teaching the Osage Indian Murders below on Teacher Pay Teachers and try it out in the classroom!

 


Why use historical mysteries to teach English?

  • Real historical mysteries are popular and engaging. There’s a reason that there are so many shows about them. Students are going to be motivated to read and discuss them, maybe be the one to solve the unsolved!
  • When students study history, they are discussing events, using language to talk about cause and effect, order of events, pre-existing circumstances. And they are also expressing opinions and levels of certainty, all key language
  • Analyzing a real unsolved mystery teaches key critical thinking, research, and analytical skills, important for academic work or civil life.

Check out the full lesson plan teaching the Osage Indian Murders.

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A full unit with vocab exercise, warm-up questions, a reading, discussion questions, a history quiz, and writing and research projects.

Buy the whole book: History’s Mysteries

40 historical mysteries from all over the world covering a broad range of topics: unsolved crimes, strange disappearances, otherworldly events, conspiracies, strange ancient buildings!

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