Oatman Massacre: The Bones Still Speak

 

Olive Oatman

A cool wind blows from east to west across our lonely mesa, impeded only by scattered low-lying creosote bushes and straggling steadfast saguaro, and a volcanic rock field spread helter-skelter to the horizon sustains a barely perceptible mournful moan from time past. Standing here in silence, screams of terror echo from an event that took place here 167 years ago. A signpost awaits our laborious hike up the rock-strewn, hardscrabble cut in the cliff face; the rock underfoot is scarred by the wagon wheels of the Butterfield Stage that passed twice a day for three years and wore grooves in the rock. We reach a plain metal sign that reads simply: “Site of Oatman Massacre, Feb. 18, 1851, Yuma County Historical Society.”

Oatman massacre site

The Butterfield Stage was to follow the tracks of countless travelers to this spot—Native Americans, intrepid explorers, and the fated Oatman family. It is here where our story begins.

Wagon ruts worn in rock

Roys Oatman was born in Vermont in the early nineteenth century, descended from Dutch immigrants, and in time his family became captivated by the religious fervor of the time, converting from the Dutch Reformed Church to Methodist. Members of the family began migrating, as was the zeitgeist of those times, escaping poor weather and economic hardships, to arrive in New York just as a wave of evangelical fervor swept America. New sects were popping up like weeds, and the Oatmans joined the masses of aspirants to a better life, prospecting farming opportunities in the Ohio River valley, Indiana, and Illinois regions.

When Roys turned 23, he married Mary Ann Sperry, and they produced seven children between the years 1834 and 1849. During those years, the family came in contact with a former Vermonter named Joseph Smith, the charismatic self-proclaimed prophet of a religious sect designated as the Latter Day Saints, known by most as Mormons.

The Mormons and the Brewsterites

Smith was said to have a gift of spiritual insight, using crystal balls to see “ghosts, infernal spirits, and mountains of gold and silver,” and he tapped into the spiritual fever spreading like wildfire across America. When he was 25, he published his Book of Mormon, translated from, he claimed, golden plates found buried in the side of the hill near his father’s farm. These magical plates purported to tell a history of ancient peoples, the Nephites (“a white, delightsome people”) and the Lamanites (“a dark, filthy and loathsome people”) who fled Jerusalem around 600 B.C. settling in America.

These gold plates were never revealed (why doesn’t this surprise me?), and were allegedly kept in a locked box behind a curtain to be translated only by the home-schooled Smith with the help of special glasses given to him by the Angel Moroni, their guardian. Surprisingly, many people were taken in by this phantasmagorical religious creation, and sought affiliation. Others dismissed it a harmless fraud, and yet others—a growing number—were outraged, branding it blasphemy. In the midst of this social tornado, Smith claimed to have received the revelation that his flock were meant to seek out the New Jerusalem, or City of Zion. He dutifully sent his “saints” in a quest for its discovery.

In Ohio in 1838, a revolt against this upstart faith resulted in Smith and his close followers being tarred and feathered and they were run out of the state. Smith’s cult continued to be harassed and ensuing arguments, battles, and a war resulted in their flight to Illinois in 1839. The Illinoisans were sympathetic to those suffering what they perceived as religious persecution and welcomed Joseph’s flock. This sanctuary was to be short-lived, however, as people soon learned of the new church’s belief in polygamy, antithetical to their own religious doctrine.

Roys Oatman and his family were caught in the spell of Mormonism, though, and joined the church with the same enthusiasm that had shown itself in their previous transformation to Methodism. Like all religions, the Mormons believed that they alone were God’s chosen people. However, the large numbers of orthodox Christian deserters, the polygamy that offended prevailing moral principles, and Smith’s expanding political power—he had become the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and was even considering running for the office of President of the United States—ignited a groundswell of anger against the church. Warrants for the arrest of Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were issued after Smith closed down the local newspaper that criticized him for sexual malfeasance; many believed that he was intending on declaring himself king. The Smith brothers surrendered to the authorities and were jailed, along with several of their followers. A mob of angry citizens—incited, some say, by the local Masonic lodge, who sought revenge against Smith for stealing Masonic secrets to establish Mormon ritual—stormed the jail, shooting and killing Joseph and Hyrum Smith, though some of his followers survived.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s murder scene

Joseph Smith’s death opened a hole in the leadership of his church and others attempted to fill it: we will follow the one that leads to the conclusion of this story. The Oatmans, still holding onto the faith of the Mormon Church, looked for signs of new leadership, and that leadership was revealed to be James Colin Brewster. When he was just ten years old, word spread that Brewster had a gift for seeing visions and objects not seen by the natural eye, such as “ancient records that are to be written.” Overlooking the vagueness of his visions and, like Smith, his complete lack of education, the boy was examined by Mormon temple elders, and they soon declared that Brewster was a prophet, a seer, a revelator, and a translator. Not surprisingly, this led the boy to have more “revelations,” this time in the form of an angel commanding him to write the “books of Esdras.” Young Brewster’s lack of education meant that he could not write himself, so his semi-literate father took dictation. Eventually, scribes were employed to assist and finally a message was received that a gathering place had been appointed for the “saints.” No actual location—despite “divine” intervention—was provided, but it was said to be located in a vague, remote corner of Southwest America. It was a place called Cedonia, the Land of Bashan, the Land of California, the Land of Peace…and this author can’t help including: the Land of OZ!

The official Mormon Church quickly denounced Brewster, whose prophetic proclamations and growing ego challenged and denounced Joseph Smith. The Church stated that only Smith was appointed to receive the commandments as received by Moses. A power war of words ensued between the Mormon hierarchy and the newly self-appointed “Brewsterites.”

The Dark Road Ahead

Roys Oatman, now head of a family of nine, found his shibboleth in Brewster. He sold the family’s possessions, the family packed what little they thought they’d need for a new life, and they set off West on May 6, 1850, joining the Brewsters and a small caravan of hopeful aspirants to discover “Bashan.” Soon though, many in the group became annoyed by the lackadaisical attitude of the Brewster family in maintaining a focused journey. Some seem to have felt that the Brewsters had no clue what their destination was, and perhaps were stonewalling. Unrest smoldered among the families, and some separated themselves from the main group. Approximately 90 people pressed on following, for a time, the Santa Fe Trail across the Plains into the mountains of New Mexico and the unknown dangers of Indian country. After all, it had been prophesied in the Mormon scripture that the “Lamanites would one day accept the gospel,” whereupon “their scales of darkness shall fall from their eyes, and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.”

It was hard travel for the Brewsterites. The season was late, hot, and dry, fomenting restlessness. Arguments and campfire meetings deteriorated into shouting matches. The emigrants chose the quicker, southern route in an attempt to save travel time, and consequently crossed the part of the country that the native Mexicans called the “Jornada Del Muerto,” the Journey of Death. Ominous human bones, dead pack animals, and castoff travel detritus littered their route, stoking fears among the group. A passing U.S. Government mail train warned the travelers that Indians had been spotted in the area and advised them to leave. Brewster proclaimed that they were under the special protection of the Almighty, and they pressed on. Nearby Native Americans were very aware of the pilgrims’ presence, and tested their defenses by stealing some of their livestock at night. Tensions continued to mount among the wagon teams, and on October 9, 1850, those sympathetic to the Brewsters split from the Oatmans. Passing into Chiricahua Apache territory, the Oatman party was preyed upon, losing several of their animals again. The Oatman team didn’t realize that the winters of 1850-51 were some of the driest on record in the Southwest and the Native Americans were under similar drive and pressure to survive. The naïve and misinformed travelers were engaged in a growing struggle for survival.

On January 8, 1851, the exhausted families arrived in Tucson, at that time a Mexican town, to purchase the meager amounts of food and supplies that were available due to Apache raids in the area. Little rest time was allotted, and the Oatman party trekked around El Picacho (“the Peak”), a mountain observation point employed for hundreds of years by the O’odham Apaches and other tribes, to arrive at a friendly Pima native village. Despite their desperation for supplies, the Pimas informed them that what little they had could not be shared. Apache raids had claimed any surplus.

Picacho Peak

One of the women in the Oatman party gave birth on February 7, but Roys Oatman insisted that they press on to “Bashan,” just, he claimed, a short couple of hundred miles to the west. The new parents, along with all the other families, chose not to continue travel out of fear of attack and the uncertainty of resupply. Mrs. Oatman was also expecting a baby, due within three to four weeks, but Mr. Oatman’s stubbornness dominated. Waiting, regrouping, and traveling on as a group, must have monopolized their conversations. But obsessiveness and weakness of numbers brought danger, like a vise, close in around them, and Roys Oatman continued on, taking his large family with him.

Fateful Decisions

The Gila River flowed northwest, then west, and then southwest, and the Oatmans set as straight a course as possible to intersect the southwest segment. This shortcut required a passage over rough terrain. Their animals stumbled painfully. Before them lay a series of steep climbs and drops onto and off of plateaus. Oxen required assistance navigating these inclines. Unloading, lifting and guiding the wagon wheels, braking down the slope, and repacking again until the next rise forced them to do it all over again became a monotonous, mind-numbing routine. It was back-breaking work moving rocks and sand to permit their wagon’s wheels’ purchase on the volcanic rock faces. They believed they had stumbled upon a barely discernable foot path and trackway, perhaps the Mormon Battalion trail, blazed between the years 1846 and 1847.

Mormon Battalion’s trail marker at the Oatman massacre site

February 18, 1851, would be a date and memory that would live in the legends of the surviving Oatmans and annals of western history. The day dawned clear, bright, and cool, as the family crossed the Gila River and came up the sand bank to the base of a steep rocky road cut into the cliff side. They looked at each other with despair, as it seemed that the succession of ascents and descents to similar mesa tops would never end. Once again they would have to engage in the well-practiced and agonizing trial of hill negotiation.

Wagon road up to Oatman massacre mesa

Lorenzo, one of the sons, paused during the herculean push, wiped the sweat from his brow, and looked out at the slowly expanding vista of the Gila basin behind them. He thought he spied movement among the Palo Verde trees scattering the river banks below. The family managed to reach the top, livestock slipping and stumbling over loose rock, and after taking stock of the way ahead, decided to rest. They let the animals graze, gathering strength for night travel under a cool, bright, full moon. Lorenzo’s fears were realized when they spied a large group of Indians coming up the trackway.

Roys Oatman greeted the menacing group of approximately 17 Native Americans in Spanish, and the family felt waves of fear pass through them. The tribal members wanted tobacco and pipes, and after they finished smoking, demanded corn meal. Roys replied that he had almost no food to feed his own family, but offered some bread. When they had eaten the bread, the warriors demanded more. Their tone was threatening, and Roys declined. This time, one of the native group, perhaps seeing no defensive weapons, climbed into the Oatman’s wagon and began rummaging around their goods. He shouted out in insistence for meat, but Roys again said no. Immediately a group of Indians jumped up and began taking supplies from their wagon, tucking them into their clothing. Roys passively ignored this invasion, perhaps hoping not to incite a more aggressive response. While the warriors commiserated among themselves, he proceeded to repack the wagon with the items that had been carelessly thrown onto the ground. Olive Oatman, the oldest daughter, and Lorenzo recollected that no one in the family provoked the warriors in any way, but the native assemblage erupted instantly into a massive shouting and screaming charge at the family.

Lorenzo was struck on the head and fell to the ground. He attempted to rise and was struck again. Simultaneously, Roys, his pregnant wife, his daughters Lucy and Charity Ann, and sons Roys Jr., and Roland were beaten to the ground. Olive recalls seeing all of her family lying in a blood-soaked, grotesque scattering of bodies, then she passed out.

The warriors started a looting spree among the fractured, broken, and bleeding inhabitants, stripping the wagon, removing the wheels, unyoking the cows and oxen, and—most essential to our story—capturing 13-year-old Olive and her 8-year-old sister, Mary Ann. The scene of carnage left behind would leave its mark on history and the horror of those moments of rage, fear, and terror would echo in time on that lonely plateau.

Captivity

Olive and Mary Ann recollect that their attackers divided into two groups, one herding the animals and carrying the looted items while the others shepherded the captured girls about half a mile to a campsite. After a brief rest and some food, which the girls refused, they continued their march. By this time their captors had removed the girls’ shoes, knowing that would prevent their escape. Their feet were quickly bruised and bloodied by the volcanic rock, rubble, and innumerable cactus thorns. Mary Ann was too weak to continue and was carried on the back of one of the attackers. All the Oatmans’ oxen and livestock were butchered, and Olive remembered that they marched on for three or four days to the Native American village.

Olive retold stories of mistreatment and forced labor while living with the tribe. She and Mary Ann, in poor health, were treated harshly as captives, which was the custom among the native peoples at that time. Over the course of about a year, though, they slowly assimilated into tribal life, learning how to avoid being beaten, and Olive learned the language of her captors, thought to be Tolkepaya.

One day, another native group, presumed to be the Mohaves and friendly with the Tolkepaya, came into their camp, learned of their captives, and sought to trade for them. The leader of this Mohave group was a young woman who, Olive later learned, was the daughter of their chief, “beautiful, intelligent, well-spoken, fluent in the languages of both tribes,” and most important, sympathetic to the predicament of the girls. Olive and Mary Ann were asked if they would prefer staying with their captors or leaving with the Mohaves. They declined to answer for fear it would be held against them. After much tribal discussion and controversial argumentation it was agreed they would be sold or traded for horses, blankets, beads, and foodstuffs. The girls then traveled with the Mohaves on a journey of about ten days through the desert to an area near the Colorado River where the states of Arizona, Nevada, and California intersected. Indeed this was not to be the wondrous “Bashan” that the Brewsterites had traveled so long, with tragic painful loss, to discover.

Olive and Mary Ann entered the chief’s household, where they were expected to work for their lodging, gathering wood, picking berries, and joining in the labor of sowing and harvesting wheat, corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons. In time, as the girls’ language skills improved, they entered into a deeper engagement with the Mohaves, discovering many who treated them with kindness, and friendships were forged. The chief’s wife assumed a motherly role with the girls, giving them plots of ground to cultivate as their own. Friendship flourished between Olive, Mary Ann, and the chief’s daughter, and to formalize this relationship, the tribe renamed Olive “Spantsa.” A mark of tribal relationships among the Mohaves was tattooing, and both Olive and Mary Ann joined in this initiation.

They were decorated with chin tattoos and single lines on each arm, with pigments from the juice of weeds mixed with blue powder ground from river rocks, and rubbed into the bleeding lines.

During the ensuing years after their transfer to the Mohaves, Mary Ann continued to grow weak from lack of nutrition. Despite Olive’s and the tribal chief’s family’s efforts, she died in the year Olive presumed to be 1855. Olive buried her sister, who had joined the growing number of Mohaves who also died of starvation in those drought years. Her burial was against the tribal tradition of cremation, but the tribe allowed Olive to do this.

Discovery

Retracing our steps to the day of the massacre, we take up Lorenzo’s story. With amazing good luck, he managed to survive the Native American attack, he surmised, by either being thrown over the edge of the mesa, or falling over the cliff and remaining undiscovered by the marauding band as they left the scene of destruction. Lorenzo managed to make his way slowly to an emigrant encampment, where he recovered and spent the next five years seeking his fortune. Eagerly, he attempted to unearth more information about his family’s demise. While in Los Angeles, he joined up with men trekking into the mountains prospecting for gold, hoping that two goals might be met: information about his sisters—who he hoped might still be alive—and a means to make a living. News was received that one of them had died in captivity, but that the surviving sister was still living with an unknown tribe. Letters and petitions moved across the chain of government and military hands until one day, after runners had been sent out among the indigenous peoples, information returned that indeed Olive, or at least, a white woman named Spantsa, had been discovered. A Quechan tribal member offered to intercede and negotiate for her release.

February 1856 thrust Olive and her tribal family into turmoil and transition. The tribal emissary did indeed appear, and entered into an arduous three-day negotiation for Olive’s release. The tribal council argued that keeping her as a means of future friendly engagement with the white military would be more advantageous than her release. Finally the chief agreed to part with Olive, sweetened by the “gift” of a white horse. Accompanied by the chief’s daughter Topeka, Olive returned to Fort Yuma, dressed in her tribal attire of only a willow bark dress. A calico gown was quickly found so that she could be “properly” presentable.

The Olive Oatman welcomed at the fort was a woman transformed by five years of change beyond the ken of most people. Her English was halting, her countenance darkened by hard labor in sun and elements, and of course the inescapable permanent facial tribal tattoos created unsought attention. She was taken into the care of women in logistical support of the fort and slowly regained her familiarity with the English language and American acculturation.

Her brother Lorenzo soon heard of Olive’s recovery, and left California to reunite with his sister, and they spent much time acclimating themselves to the ensuing year’s changes and hardships. The last Olive saw of her tribal family was a final farewell with a member of the Mohave tribe who greeted her as she and Lorenzo were leaving the fort by wagon. It is said that Olive told him in his native tongue, “I will tell all about the Mohave and how I lived with them. Good-bye.”

Epilogue

Olive Oatman shared her story with newspapers throughout the West, and her and Lorenzo’s fame spread throughout America. She went on the lecture circuit, connecting with the Reverend Royal Byron Stratton, pastor of a Methodist church, and author of a semi-factual book recounting her experiences. The book became wildly popular in a country fascinated with Native encounters. Olive eventually married a wealthy cattle baron and banker who shielded her for the rest of her life from public scrutiny.

Middle-aged Olive, heavily made up to hide her facial tattoos

Lorenzo married and struggled unsuccessfully for success. He died at the age of 65, followed by Olive a year and a half later. Rev. Stratton became mentally unstable, and was defrocked from the church. There were always unsubstantiated rumors that Olive had half-Native American children, but never any proof.

And so we circle back to the ill-fated Oatmans. Roys’s choice to follow and believe in a charlatan’s made-up visions, and his stubborn refusal to heed his internal conscience and the warnings of others, cost his and his family’s lives, and incredible suffering for Olive, Mary Ann, and Lorenzo. The ensuing written publication of the Oatman Massacre places the blame of this tragedy on the Native American tribe as a consequence of the societal beliefs at the time. A chunk of this remains true, but the lion’s share can be laid squarely on Roys’s decision to blatantly disregard forewarning.

For years, the remains of the deceased family lay in situ, to rot and join the food chain on that rocky mesa top, bones scattered haphazardly among the rocks and cactus. Occasional wagons struggled over and past, including the Butterfield Stage that shared that remote trail, until at some point, the bones were gathered and covered in rock cairns. Later, travelers paused to remove the stones and re-inter the bones down the cliff to a spot where they could be buried in the soft sandy earth bordering the Gila River. The Gila, however, rampaged and flooded the burial spot. Many years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution banded together to build a more permanent granite and concrete memorial with a bronze plaque inscribed with the words

In Memory Of
The Oatman Family
Six Members Of This Pioneer
Family
Massacred By Indians In March
1851
Erected By The Arizona Society
Daughters Of The American
Revolution – 1954

Oatman family burial plot