To make a very long story slightly shorter, the Osage certainly did not stumble upon the oil by sheer luck. While it’s true that the land they were forced to live on was seen as worthless in the eyes of many white officials, the Osage quickly spotted signs of potential oil and mineral deposits when scouting their new home. Between those signs and their knowledge of how other tribes had previously been mistreated by the government, the Osage leaders made a point of negotiating for mineral rights when discussing the terms of their move to the land. What was likely seen as a largely meaningless provision became incredibly significant when oil was discovered on the Osage’s land in the late 1800s.
On that same subject, the movie doesn’t entirely capture just how valuable the oil find was. From 1901 to 1950, the Osage tribe received roughly $300 million from their mineral rights, which would be the equivalent of about $4 billion today. For further context, that makes the Osage oil discovery more valuable than all of the gold discovered during the United States gold rush.
The Number of Osage Murders and Murderers
Though Killers of the Flower Moon certainly doesn’t shy away from portraying scenes of violence (it’s a Martin Scorsese movie, after all), the film arguably undersells the number of Osage tribe members and associated allies who were probably murdered as a result of the oil profits.
It’s been popularly suggested that around 24 people were murdered during the so-called “Reign of Terror” (the events portrayed in the film which largely took place between 1921 and 1926). However, that number has long been the subject of some debate. Due to the secretive nature of many of the murders (many of them were made to look like natural deaths), inherent flaws in the reporting/investigation process at that time, and old-fashioned corruption and racism, it’s likely that the initially reported number of murders was wildly inaccurate. Renewed reports suggest that there were likely more than 50 Osage and Osage-related murders during that time period. Others (including Killers of the Flower Moon author David Grann) argue that hundreds of Osage were murdered between the discovery of oil in the late 1800s and the 1950s.
On that note, the Killers of the Flower Moon book ends with a haunting epilogue that sees Grann try to pick up the case, so to speak, and investigate the murders with the help of modern resources and historical context. His findings not only lead him to believe that we had previously drastically underestimated the number of murders but the number of murderers as well. Not only does Grann identify more culprits who may have directly participated in the Reign of Terror murders and got away with it, but also several William Hale-like power brokers who may have orchestrated murders from afar. The film seemingly hints at that revelation during the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart is confronted by a room full of men during the events of his trial. The implication seems to be that each of those individuals was either involved in the murders or otherwise still stood to benefit from them and allowed them to continue.
The Fledgling Early Days of the FBI
One of the most significant differences between the Killers of the Flower Moon book and film is the book’s focus on the early days of the FBI and how the investigation into the Osage murders reshaped the organization. In fact, the full title of the book is “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” To summarize, a sizable portion of the book follows FBI agent Tom White and is essentially told from his perspective. Not only does that format offer us more insight into the details of the investigation but it allows Grann the chance to better explore the politics of the FBI’s origins.