March 28, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Historical Photos Of The Osage, The Richest Tribe On Earth

The Richest People On Earth

When the Osage people found oil on their lands, it made them the richest people per-capita on Earth. And like all rich people—they took lots of pictures.


They Fought With Iroquois

The Osage originated in the Ohio River Valley, but conflict with the Iroquois eventually forced them west, probably around 1200 AD.

An Osage Warrior - 1811Pavel Svinyin, Wikimedia Commons

They Settled Near The Osage River

After centuries of migration and resettlement, many Osage had settled near the Osage River in Western Missouri.

West bridge at Osage, Iowa.photolibrarian, Flickr

They Conquered The Region

After starting as newcomers to the region, the Osage drove off the local Caddo tribes and by 1750 their lands covered large swaths of modern-day Missouri, Arkansas, Okahoma, and Kansas.

Comanche Osage FightGeorge Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Had Fierce Rivals

Though the Osage were fearsome, they still had three fierce rivals nearby: the Kiowa, the Commanche, and the Apache.

Apache Indians, as they appear ready for the war-path.Boston Public Library, Flickr

They Travelled To Hunt Buffalo 

They might have lived in the forests of Missouri and Arkansas, but Osage hunters made regular expeditions to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo.

Hunting Bison in USA by Indian.Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

They Made Contact

Though the Osage were probably pretty wary of Europeans, the foreigners did bring something they wanted: Horses. The drive for more horses led the Osage to begin trading with French people near their lands.

Six Osage Native AmericansPierre Lacroix, Wikimedia Commons

They Gave Europeans A Nickname

The Osage called Europeans I'n-Shta-Heh, which means "heavy eyebrows" because of their bushy beards and mustaches.

Oklahoma - Osage Indian And PonyUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

They Sided With The French

When European squabbles encroached on their land, the Osage sided with the French over the Spanish. A delegation of Osage later went to France to see Paris, where they saw Versailles, an opera, and hunted with King Louis XV.

Portrait of Louis XV of FranceMaurice Quentin de La Tour, Wikimedia Commons

Business Was Good

Thanks to their connections with French fur traders in St. Louis, the Osage took part in the extremely lucrative Missouri fur trade.

Osage warrior of the Wha-sha-she bandGeorge Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Met Lewis And Clark

When Lewis and Clark encountered the Osage, they guessed the tribe numbered around 5,500. The meeting took place just a couple years after a devastating smallpox outbreak, however, that claimed upwards of 2,000 Osage.

Lewis And ClarkCharles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons

They Raided Villages

The Osage were at odds with the US government at the start of the 19th century. They frequently raided American village—in response, the Americans gave arms to other tribes in the area and convinced them to attack the Osage with them.

The Village Of White Hair Mural - 2006Michael Overton, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

They Signed A Deal

The Osage were fierce, but nothing could stop industrial churn of the United States. In 1808, they signed their first treaty with the US Government, ceding 52,480,000 acres to the Americans. It was just the beginning.

Senator Harreld & Rep. Montgomery with Osage Indians - 1926Library of Congress, Picryl

They Kept Fighting Other Tribes

The Americans were a thorn in the Osage's side, but they were also in constant conflict with Cherokee, Kiowa, and Commanche—and it could get incredibly brutal. 

Cáh-he-ga-shín-ga, Little Chief - 1834George Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Didn't Fight Clean

One particularly grim episode was the Cutthroat Gap massacre, where Osage warriors slew 150 Kiowa women, children, and elderly, cut off their victims heads, and put them in cooking pots.

Kiowa GirlsGeorge A. Addison, Wikimedia Commons

Their Lands Kept Shrinking

Between 1818 and 1825, the Osage ceded more of their land to the government. They were relocated to the Osage Diminished Reserve, a 50-by-150-mile of land.

Osage camp, Oklahoma.Library of Congress, Picryl

They Bought Their Land

The Osage were finally pushed out completely in 1870. They sold their ancestral lands in Kansas to the government of Ulysses S. Grant for a pretty penny. But there was a silver lining.

Ulysses S. Grant - 1865Missouri History Museum ,Picryl

They Had Some Money

Because the received money for their original lands, the Osage actually had money to buy their land in Oklahoma, unlike the vast majority of Native American tribes relocated there. 

This meant they enjoyed better land rights and sovereignty than many tribes. It didn't help much.

Shin-ga-wás-sa - Osage Indian looking at side.George Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Bought Their New Home

The Osage purchased 1,470,000 acres of land in Oklahoma in 1872—and notably, they kept all mineral rights to the land.

Oklahoma - Osage Indian Dancers - 1940Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Early Days Were A Nightmare

Between plagues and conflict, the Osage's final years in Kansas were devastating—but their early days in Oklahoma were even worse.

Mo-Hon-Go. Osage Woman - 1842SMU Central University Libraries, Wikimedia Commons

They Were Promised Help

Before the massive relocation of Native American tribes to Oklahoma, the US Government promised to support these new communities while they grew established. That didn't happen.

Osage Indian woman with other female - 1923Library of Congress, Picryl

The Government Abandoned Them

Despite the promises, the Osage and other tribes didn't receive governmental support for years. Food supplies dwindled, and many starved. And what they did receive left a lot to be desired.

Coolidge with Osage Indians outside - 1925Library of Congress, Picryl

They Cut Corners

Corrupt middlemen often tried to stretch their food supplies as much as possible to maximize their profits, meaning that much of the food that did reach the Osage was of incredibly poor quality.

Oklahoma - Osage Indian Woman And PapooseUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

They Didn't Sit And Take It

The Osage weren't going to accept this treatment. They sent a delegation to Washington DC to demand both the cash they had been promised to and better quality rations. 

A group of Osage people sitting in front of a building - 1923Library of Congress, Picryl

They Got The Money

The government even paid, too, making the Osage the first Native American tribe to receive their full cash annuities.

Coolidge with Osage Indians - 1924Library of Congress, Picryl

They Struck Oil

Remember the mineral rights to the Osage land? In 1894, massive oil deposits were found on Osage land. The Osage had the rights to lease those lands—and those leases paid out BIG.

The Lucas Gusher at Spindletop Hill - 1901Paleontological Research Institution, Wikimedia Commons

They Were The Richest People On Earth

The royalties from oil produced on Osage land were shared only among a few thousand tribe members. In 1923 alone, those royalties brought in $30 million. That's half a billion dollars today.

Osage tribe member - 1895Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

They Knew How To Dress

After centuries of violence and hardship, it seemed like the Osage finally had made it to easy street. But the oil had unbreakable strings attached to it.

Kihegashugah, or Leipzig, Wikimedia Commons

They Weren't Allowed To Spend Their Money

The US Government passed a law that said all Osage needed to be appointed a "guardian" to manage their wealth until they can prove "competency".

Osage Indians standing outside - 1923Library of Congress, Picryl

They Were Horribly Exploited

The Osage's "guardians" were frequently horribly corrupt and exploited their charges horribly—but that was nothing.

Group of Osage Indians - 1824George Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Started Being Murdered

As the years went by, more and more Osage people were turning up dead, with little to no investigation, the headrights to their oil going with them. By the 1920s, the Osage considered the murders a "Reign of Terror".

Photograph (black and white) from an album; studio portrait of a group of Osage men.William Henry Blackmore, Wikimedia Commons

Authorities Did Nothing

Very few of these cases were ever investigated or solved, and the coroner's office frequently colluded with the murderers, writing off the Osage deaths as suicides.

Delegation composing the Council of the Osage Indian tribe of Oklahoma - 1925Library of Congress, Picryl

The Truth Was Far Worse Than It Appeared

In fact, the Reign of Terror was carried out by white settlers who ingratiated themselves into Osage communities, married into their families, and killed them for their headrights.

Osage Nation people - 1834George Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

They Had One Advantage

Though countless Indigenous people have been victimized in America with little recourse, the Osage had one thing that set them apart: boatloads of money. Surely someone could help them solve the murders.

Lone Bear, Osage, in a Fur Vest - 1912Vince Dillon, Wikimedia Commons

They Went Back To Washington

The Osage sent another delegation to Washington, DC to ask the government for help stopping the Reign of Terror.

Delegation composing the Council of the Osage Indian tribe of Oklahoma in Wash.Library of Congress, Picryl

The FBI Got Involved

The Osage investigation actually became the FBI's first-ever murder case—and they did actually manage to get to the bottom of it.

It's not like the perpetrators were trying that hard to cover their tracks.

FBI agent in 1939 with portable telephone.Federal Bureau of Investigation. Picryl

The Put A Stop To The Reign

The FBI uncovered the plotting of William Hale and his nephews Byron and Ernest to marry into the Osage Kyle family, murder their wives, and inherit their rights.

Ernest Burkhart And His Wife Mollie Kyle - 1917Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

They Saved One Woman

The Osage woman Mollie Kyle was being actively poisoned by her own husband, Hale's nephew Ernest, when the FBI investigation started.

Thankfully, they arrived in time to save Kyle's life.

Portrait of Mollie Kyle.Skisquash, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Didn't Get Much Closure

Between 1921 and 1925, it's estimated that 60 Osage were murdered, and the vast majority of these were never solved.

Wa-Sho-She (Hon-Ga A-Hiu-Ton) of the Eagle Gens, Osage Tribe - 1895Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

They're Still There

Though the Osage are no longer the richest people on earth, their lands still produce oil to this day, and the headrights still pay out quarterly royalties—though it's estimated that 25% of Osage headrights today belong to non-Indigenous people.

President Calvin Coolidge posed with Natives - 1925National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

They Got Some Small Payback

In 1999, the Osage sued the United States government over mismanaging their trust funds and mineral estates. It took over a decade, but in 2011, the government agreed to a payout of $380 million in damages for the approximately 16,000 members of the tribe.

Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma - 1980sJERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons


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