Published on Wednesday, May 27, 2015
The Oatman Massacre
By Gary Every
On February 18th, 1851 a covered wagon climbed the steep bank rising above the Gila River. On board the covered wagon were Royce and Mary Oatman with their seven children ranging in age from seventeen to one year of age. A group of Native American warriors attacked the wagon in what became known as the Oatman Massacre. Lorenzo Oatman aged 15, was clubbed repeatedly. When Lorenzo regained consciousness he discovered the dead bodies of his father mother, and four of his siblings. What he did not find were any traces of his sisters Olive and Mary Ann.
To reach the Massacre Site we drive into the middle of the desert wilderness between Phoenix and Califonia. We park the jeeps beneath a volcanic shelf. To reach the plateau we climb the ruins of an old wagon road. This road has been used for centuries. A small handmade sign marks it as part of the Mormon Battalion Trail. It was also part of the Butterfield Stagecoach route. Conquistador Juan De Anza passed through on his journey from Tubac to California. Native Americans travelled this road for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The top of the plateau is covered with desert asphalt, black volcanic rock, and a smattering of creosote and palo verde. In the middle of all this nothing is a small commemorative plaque, a pile of stones, a cross made of saguaro ribs and some brightly colored plastic flowers. The brightly colored plastic flowers can be seen from miles away.
There are no other signs of human activity beside the ancient road and the Oatman Massacre Monument. When the Oatman covered wagon reached the stony plateau above the river a group of Native American warriors approached, asking for tobacco and a pipe so that they might smoke together in a bond of friendship. The meeting suddenly turned violent. Lorenzo described the horrific moment. "Suddenly, as a clap of thunder from a clear sky, a deafening yell broke upon us, the Indians jumping into the air, and uttering the most frightful shrieks, and at the same time springing towards us flourishing war clubs which had hitherto been concealed under their wolf skins. I was struck on the back and top of my head, came to my knees, when with another blow, I was struck blind and senseless."
Olive continued the narrative from there. "As soon as they had taken me to one side, and while one of the Indians was leading me off, I saw them strike Lorenzo, and almost at the same instant my father also. I was so bewildered and taken by surprise by the suddenness of their movements and their deafening yells that it was some little time before I could realize the horrors of my situation. When I turned around and opened my eyes, and collected my thoughts, I saw my father, my own dear sweet father! Struggling, bleeding, and moaning in the most pitiful manner. Lorenzo was lying with his face in the dust, the top of his head covered with blood, and his ears and his mouth bleeding profusely. I looked around and saw my poor mother, with her youngest child clasped in her arms and both of them still as if death had already been completed; a little distance on the opposite side of the wagon, stood little Mary Ann, with her face covered with her hands, sobbing aloud with a huge Indian standing over her."
Olive and Mary Ann were abducted by the warriors. Although Olive would describe them as Apache most historians believe they were abducted by a band of Yavapai known as Tolkepayas. The two young girls were treated as slaves. After about a year they were traded to the Mohave for two horses, vegetables, blankets and assorted trinkets.
Life was better for the two Oatman girls among the Mojave. They were adopted by the chief, Espanesay and his wife Aespaneo. Both Oatman girls were adopted into the tribe and given the blue facial tattoos that would identify them for the rest of their lives and far into their afterlives as Mojave. According to climate records, 1855 was a terrible drought year and that is probably the year Mary Ann died, along with many other Mojave during a terrible famine. Olive however would survive her time among the Native Americans.
It took Lorenzo three days to return to civilization and then he quickly returned to the massacre site to bury the bodies. "We buried the bodies of father, mother, and babe in one common grave." They could not dig a grave in the rocky volcanic soil, so they lay the bodies together and piled rocks into a cairn over them. This is not the original gravesite, the bones have been moved many times. There is still a pile of stones covering the Oatman bones and a tombstone. Like the massacre site with its bright plastic flowers, someone is tending the grave. There are offerings of coins which someone has carefully arranged into the shape of a cross.
Lorenzo never stopped looking for his lost sisters, Olive and Mary Ann. Rumors persisted of a white woman living among the Mojave. The Mojave resisted at first, hiding Olive. Upon being threatened that not releasing Olive would make the soldiers very angry, the Mojave were forced to sell her. Olive was delivered to Fort Yuma in 1856 and her reunion with Lorenzo made national news.
A preacher named Royal B. Stratton wrote a bestselling book of the experience. Olive toured the country, speaking in lecture halls to promote the book. She was photographed many times, her blue tattoos on display.
Olive was also reunited with her childhood friend Susan Thompson, who later claimed that Olive was "grieving" during her rescue, realizing that she would never see her husband or two young sons ever again. Olive repeatedly denied these claims. Olive eventually married a cattleman and lived a long life in Texas until she passed away in 1903.
Gary Every is an award winning journalist, including for stories such as The Apache Naichee and Losing Geronimo's Language. He is the author of Shadow of the OhshaD (OhshaD is a Native american word for jaguar) and Battling the Hydra, a collection of encounters with mostly wild animals. His poetry has been nominated for both Pushcart prizes as well as the Rhysling Award for the years best science fiction poem. His work appears in a variety of magazines such as Arizona Highways, Desert Leaf, Weber Studies, Tales of the Talisman, and many more.