Archives + Audiences: Journalist David Grann on “Killers of the Flower Moon”

David Grann, author, Lost City of Z

This post is part of our new Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.

In this Archives + Audiences entry, we bring you an interview with David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 2017), on the centrality of archival research to the writing of this important yet little-known chapter in American history.  Just released in paperback on April 3rd, Killers of the Flower Moon has garnered a mass of critical acclaim and was a National Book Award finalist.

David Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the bestselling author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which has been translated into more than twenty languages. His stories have appeared in many anthologies of the best American writing, and he has written for The New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

ArchivesAWARE: What archival collections did you use for research while writing Killers of the Flower Moon?

Cover of “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017)

Grann: I drew on records from so many archives. They included the National Archives, Library of Congress, Oklahoma Historical Society, Osage Nation Museum, Oklahoma State Archives and Records Management, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and University of Oklahoma Western History Collections.

ArchivesAWARE: Were there any collections that you’d single out as being most essential to the writing of the book?  Why?  How did you come to discover those collections?

Grann: A branch of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, was an essential repository for my research. Many federal records concerning Oklahoma—including documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the judicial system—are stored there. Among the unexpected documents I found in a box here was the secret grand jury testimony from the prosecution of some of the murderers of the Osage. This testimony proved invaluable in telling the history of what happened and being able to record the voices of many of the participants. It’s why I think it’s important when doing archival research to look through boxes that may not be precisely catalogued, because you don’t know what you might turn up.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the collections surprise you or spark an “a-ha!” moment?

Grann: At the archives in Fort Worth, I also came across a tattered logbook, which contained the names of white guardians. Because of extraordinary racism, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation requiring many Osage to have white guardians to oversee their wealth. The logbook listed the Osage who had been assigned to each guardian, and if one of these Osage had passed away under the guardianship system, a single word was usually scrawled by his or her name: Dead. I noticed that one guardian was assigned to five Osages, and all five of their names were followed by that word. Another guardian had thirteen wards, more than half of whom had been listed as deceased. And so it went. The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate. I began to get a sense of the breadth of the systematic murder campaign against the Osage.

ArchivesAWARE: Was there something you were hoping to find but didn’t?

Grann: In research, especially historical research, there are always some gaps of information, which gnaw at you.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using any collections?

Grann: No, I was fortunate. Not only did institutions share with me their collections, but many Osage who had kept letters and court records and photos also did.

ArchivesAWARE: How would you describe the overall impact of archival collections on the writing of the book?

Grann: This book is born out of archives. It could not have been written without the benefit of these collections, and the many archivists who kindly guided me to hidden troves.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you would like to share about your archival research experience in connection with Killers of the Flower Moon?

Grann: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery happened when I told a librarian at the New York City Public Library about my research. To my astonishment, he told me that some members of his family were from Oklahoma and were related to several of the victims and the murderers I was writing about. He put me in touch with them, which led to a wealth of information.

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