Tragedies of the Osage Hills, billed as “the most sensational picture of the age,” was released May 11, 1926, at the American Theatre in downtown Cushing, Oklahoma. Produced by Native American filmmaker James Young Deer and his partner, Oklahoma hotel owner Frank L. Thompson, the movie was described as a drama about the Osage Reign of Terror interwoven with a “tender love story.”
The story of the Osage murders is now the subject of Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming movie Killers of the Flower Moon, based upon the best-selling 2017 book of the same name by David Grann.
But Young Deer’s version of the Osage tragedies opened just four months after the January 1926 arrests of William King Hale, Ernest Burkhart and John Ramsey — played by Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tay Mitchell, respectively, in Scorsese’s film — for the horrifying murders of several dozen or more Osage Indians over their oil headrights.
Young Deer, vp and general manager of the Thompson Moving Picture Corporation in Cushing, shot nearly 8,000 feet of film (approximately 80 minutes) and cast hundreds of Native Americans in his production. Tragedies of the Osage Hills boasted an all-star cast that included Young Deer’s wife, Lillian A. King, who portrayed Little Princess Prairie Flower, and Toodles, the youngest actor in the movie.
According to the Cushing Daily Citizen, the fictitious last scene was one of friendship between Native Americans and whites under the American flag.
Young Deer’s dramatic thriller, with its romantic subplot and fairy-tale conclusion, contrasted sharply to the real-life story. Years of exploitation, shootings, poisonings and explosions had rocked the community and left it soaked in blood.
Nevertheless, local newspapers boasted that his film was “based on real facts of the atrocious murders committed in the Osage country” and advised every citizen of Oklahoma to see it.
The movie’s large crowds prompted further screenings in Oklahoma’s small-town theaters. One of them, located in Edmond, capitalized on the tragic events by featuring three of the film’s stars in person, along with wax figures of accused killers Hale and Ramsey.
But Tragedies of the Osage Hills faced its own tragedy. In September 1926, Young Deer sued his partner Thompson for taking possession of the movie’s five prints and stealing its profits. Four months later, Thompson died, and all the prints disappeared.
The movie appears to be one of the last of the talented but elusive filmmaker whose prosperous Hollywood career eventually crumbled amid deception and scandal.
As one of Hollywood’s pioneer directors, Young Deer’s credentials were impressive. He was general manager of Pathé Frères West Coast Studio from 1911 to 1914 and oversaw the production of more than 150 one-reel silent Westerns. The French-based Pathé was the world’s largest production company, with an American studio in the Los Angeles area of Edendale along Allesandro Street (now Glendale Boulevard). Edendale, near Echo Park, was the first major moviemaking area of Southern California.
Young Dear enjoyed a tremendous amount of artistic freedom. At Pathé, he was able to exercise much control over the studio’s Native American representations and was fortunate to have been active during Hollywood’s early years, especially from 1910 to 1912, when sympathetic American Indian characters were popular subjects. Back then, movie studios produced approximately 12 to 15 one- and two-reel Native-themed movies a month. These stories were versatile with no consistent thematic pattern. Many showed the stereotypical “savage warrior” who thwarted westward expansion, while others delivered a sharp indictment against white encroachment upon Native Americans.
Young Deer held the honor of being Hollywood’s first Native American filmmaker. He was married to Lilian St. Cyr from the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Known as “Princess Red Wing,” she was most famous for her role in the 1914 classic The Squaw Man, the first feature-length motion picture made in Hollywood and directed by Oscar C. Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille. Red Wing was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the first off-reservation Native American boarding school. Young Deer also boasted of a full-blooded Winnebago heritage, and he, too, claimed that he attended Carlisle.
But none of it was true. Young Deer’s heritage instead lay hidden within the small mid-Atlantic triracial community of whites, African Americans and Native Americans known as the “Moors of Delaware,” which includes the state-recognized Nanticoke Indian Tribe. His real name was James Young Johnson, born about April 1, 1878, in Washington, D.C., to George Durham Johnson and Emma Margaret Young.
James was hardly the image of a matinee idol. Military records reveal that at 5 feet, 3.25 inches, he had brown hair and brown eyes with “defective” lower teeth. He yearned for adventure, and in 1898, enlisted in the U.S. Navy to begin his tour during the Spanish-American War.
But his mixed Black/white and American Indian ancestry meant that as a “colored person,” he could serve only as a landsman or mess attendant, cooking meals for the ship’s company. His commanding officers complained that he was insolent, so they sent the young lad to solitary confinement with a diet of bread and water. (The Navy later overturned the sentence.) Disgusted, James later swore that he would never reenlist in the Navy.
The experience was a wake-up call, and James promptly shed his African American roots. “Going Indian” might open the door to other opportunities, especially in an era of dime novels and Wild West shows. With dark skin, a braided wig, a feathered war bonnet and a surname of Young Deer, he could easily pass for a Plains Indian and entertain audiences with thrilling stories of the Old West.
Young Deer and his wife Red Wing dazzled audiences while performing in spectacle dramas at New York City’s enormous Hippodrome Theatre. In the summer of 1909, D.W. Griffith of the Biograph Company hired the couple as actors and technical advisers for two of his Western-themed tales, The Mended Lute and The Indian Runner’s Romance.
The couple also appeared in Fred J. Balshofer’s one-reel shorts, playing characters named after them. In November 1909, Young Deer and Red Wing traveled with Balshofer and his small Bison company from New Jersey to sunny Los Angeles.
Young Deer got his big directing break when he returned to New Jersey in the spring of 1910 to join Pathé Frères. As an ambitious filmmaker eager to make a name for himself, he created his own version of Western-themed tales. His directorial skills blossomed under French cinema pioneer Louis J. Gasnier, who oversaw productions when Pathé decided to strengthen its American market.
White Fawn’s Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America, Young Deer’s first directing opportunity, was released by Pathé in June 1910. The budding filmmaker decided to inject a few farcical elements into Edwin Milton Royle’s 1905 Broadway play, The Squaw Man. Instead of Royle’s tragic story about an American Indian woman’s suicide when her white husband abandons her, White Fawn’s Devotion shows that the woman only feigns death and then reappears to save her husband from the tribe’s vengeance.
Months later, Pathé sent its promising filmmaker to Edendale to head up its West Coast Studio. Thanks to Young Deer, Pathé’s Westerns, previously labeled unrealistic and inaccurate, gradually received more favorable reviews under his productive reign.
As general manager at Pathé, Young Deer basked in his newfound social stature. The filmmaker who once served meals to Naval officers now owned a fancy 60-horsepower Thomas Racer and attended dinner parties with the who’s who of Los Angeles.
But in May 1913, his prolific career came to a screeching halt. Young Deer suddenly found himself in the middle of what would become Hollywood’s first major sex scandal, preceding the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle affair by eight years. The trouble began when a local Hearst newspaper announced that Evelyn Quick — later known as actress Jewel Carmen — claimed that Young Deer introduced her to two co-conspirators of a sex-trafficking ring that forced young women into prostitution.
The ring’s millionaire leader and prominent Long Beach citizen, George H. Bixby, had been indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury for “contributing to the delinquency” of many young ladies. Months of testimony eventually exploded into a sensational trial of bribery, prostitution and blackmail.
Bixby managed to escape conviction, but six months later a young woman stepped forward with another accusation that Young Deer took money “under a false promise to give her work.” Then, the Los Angeles Times reported that a 15-year-old girl accused the filmmaker of statutory rape. Young Deer jumped his $1,500 bail and fled to England. He later promised Judge Fred H. Taft that he would return to face trial.
Lucky for Young Deer, the Santa Monica judge sympathized with his heritage. “When an Indian pledges his word, he keeps it,” Taft declared.
Young Deer found work as a director and writer in the sleepy East Finchley suburb of London with the British Colonial and Kinematograph Company, where he promptly traded his skills with Westerns for two-reel urban thrillers.
Two years later, his female accusers left Los Angeles, and the case against him disappeared.
Young Deer returned to Hollywood, but his lucrative movie career faded. Pathé sold its American facilities and moved into distribution, while feature films began to replace his short, quirky tales.
The famed producer drifted in and out of movie studios. His marriage to Red Wing fell apart, although her family records reveal that the couple never divorced. Nevertheless, in 1920, he wed Lillian A. King, granddaughter of a Creek Indian chief from Oklahoma, and changed his name to James Y. Deer and his birthplace to Oklahoma. Under the banner of his Youngdeer Film Corporation, he planned to produce Watuska with King as its star. But Young Deer’s assistants sued him and his wife for lack of payment and for selling stock certificates without a permit. The court subsequently slapped a $2,000 judgment against his company.
The filmmaker and his wife shut down Watuska and bolted from Los Angeles. They set sail from Montreal to Glasgow, where Young Deer assumed an Anglo-Saxon guise, and under his new name, Edward R. Gordon, made several non-Westerns in England. In 1924, the couple traveled to Oklahoma and opened the Arrowhead Film Company in Pawhuska, the headquarters of the Osage Nation tribal government. Again, the filmmaker took on a Native American identity and rechristened himself James Gordon Youngdeer.
His next film, The Unknown Man, premiered in Pawhuska in 1925 to enthusiastic crowds. The movie was about a crooked lawyer determined to steal a valuable oil lease from the daughter of a wealthy Southern man and once again featured his wife, along with Chief Bacon Rind of the Osage. Alas, The Unknown Man became a lost film.
Following the legal fallout over Tragedies of the Osage Hills, Young Deer bounced from one studio project to another. He temporarily opened an acting school in San Francisco, then skipped to Arizona to marry yet again. Tragically, his third wife died of cancer in 1937.
With little money and a fading career, Young Deer retired to New York City and died of stomach cancer in Bellevue Hospital on April 6, 1946. The former producer of Pathé’s West Coast Studio was quietly buried in the Long Island National Cemetery as James Young Johnson, a veteran of the Spanish-American War. His contribution to Hollywood was mostly forgotten until 2008, when the Library of Congress added White Fawn’s Devotion, one of Young Deer’s few surviving pictures, to its National Film Registry.
But Tragedies of the Osage Hills became one of the thousands of silent features shot on nitrate stock that did not survive. Like most Young Deer films, it remains lost and unknown to movie fans today.