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"Oatman Massacre" at Gila River

Updated on June 30, 2015

Olive Oatman 1857

Olive with customary Mojave Indian blue tattoos on chin.
Olive with customary Mojave Indian blue tattoos on chin.

During the 1800s many hardy pioneers and their families braved the perilous journey across the Western frontier headed for the “land of Milk and Honey.” Many didn’t make it. In 1851 the Mormon family of Royce and Mary Oatman along, with their children, became one of those. Some accounts say there were 7 children, others 10. The story of the "Oatman Massacre" was well publicized at the time and became the most famous account of white settlers being slain or captured by hostile Indians.

Their story began in 1850 when they joined a wagon train of about 90 other Mormons disillusioned with Brigham Young’s leadership headed for California. The party arrived in New Mexico territory, now Arizona, in January of 1851. However, along the way disagreements broke out over which route should be taken and the party divided into two groups. The Oatman’s went with a group of 8 wagons and about 20 others on a route from the Rio Grande.

When they arrived in Tucson the small band was exhausted and entirely out of provisions. Many others who had arrived earlier were in the same shape and had decided to stay a while to recuperate. The travelers there had planned to plant crops to replenish their supplies and form larger groups to continue later on. But, the crops hadn’t yet been planted. Rather than risk starvation from failed crops the Oatman’s and two other families, decided to push on across 90 miles of desert with what few supplies they could get.

They made it to the Pimo Indian villages a little over a month later, where they hoped to get more supplies. But, it had been a bad season and there was little to be had. The two families accompanying the Oatman’s decided to stay not willing to risk 200 more miles of desert to Fort Yuma. There had also been rumors of horrifying Indian attacks. But a scout by the name of Dr. Lecount coming from the fort said he hadn’t come across any hostile Indians. So, the Oatman’s foolishly went on alone.

About 7 days out Dr. Lecount and a Mexican guide on their way back to Fort Yuma came across the Oatman family on the verge of starvation at a point below the Big Bend of the Gila River. It was obvious they would never complete their trek without assistance. Dr. Lecount told them he would send assistance from the Fort, about 90 miles away, as soon as possible.

However, the next night, Lecount and his guide were set upon by a band of Indians who stole their horses and supplies. They had no choice but to continue on foot. The Oatman’s continued on as best they could.

On the 18th of March the Oatman’s spent a harrowing night on a little sand island in the Gila River. They weathered a howling rainstorm which ruined most of their meager supplies. The next day a band of Yavapai Indians approached the destitute family.

Royce Oatman conversed amicably to them in Spanish, and asked them to sit down a while. As they did they asked for tobacco and pipes, which Royce freely shared with them. Shortly afterwards, they asked for something to eat. Mr. Oatman told them his family was near starvation themselves and could spare little if any. He gave them a few crusts of bread and apologized it couldn’t be more. After conversing in whispers a few seconds they attacked. Fourteen year old Lorenzo was struck on the head and knocked unconscious. He fell, appearing dead. The rest of the family, with the exception of Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, were quickly massacred and robbed.

Hours later, Lorenzo slowly regained consciousness. The sight of the mutilated, bloody dead bodies of his family sickened him. He knew his sisters Olive and Mary Anne had been taken captive and theirs would be a fate quite possibly worse than death.

The injured boy turned away from the sight of his dead family and crawled to the river to quench an overwhelming thirst. He then slept a few hours. When he awoke he knew he somehow had to make it to the Pimo Indian villages. So walking, sometimes crawling, he slowly and painfully headed in their direction. About two days later, he was spotted by a couple of Pimo Indians who gave him some food and promised to send help. They told him to wait, but Lorenzo was unsure whether they would or not so continued on. Sometime later he sighted two covered wagons in the distance. They were the two families who had decided to remain in Tucson. He told them what had happened and about the capture of his sisters.

Olive and Mary Anne had been dragged away barefooted and were soon covered with cuts and bruises from both falls and beatings. The clothes they wore were slowly shredded away by rocky mesas and thorny thickets. The frail Mary Ann soon collapsed from fatigue. She was beaten by a burly Indian, but when he saw she couldn’t get up, he tossed her over his shoulder and carried her.

On the 3rd day of their journey, they came to a cluster of thatched huts. The tribe of about 300 was, for the most part, filthy. The two girls were subjected to cruel and harsh treatment and forced to work from morning till night in servitude. They had to gather whatever they could find to eat, such as roots and insects and sometimes went without food for days.

Several months later a band of Mojave Indians stopped in the village to trade and a deal was struck for the purchase of the 2 girls. Afterwards the girls went on a 10-day journey to the Colorado River and the Mohave village. The 200 mile journey to the Mojave village in what is now Needles, California, subjected them to hardships worse than any they had so far endured.

The Mojave tribe was more prosperous than their former captor’s and the chief's wife took an interest in the 2 girls. The girls were allotted land to farm and were both tattooed on their chins and arms as was their custom. But, about a year later, there was a severe drought and the tribe experienced a shortage of food. Mary Ann, who had been so weakened over the course of her previous ordeals, succumbed and died of starvation at the age of 10. It was the custom of the Mojave to burn their dead, but her benefactor pitied Olive and intervened to let her bury her sister instead.

In the interim Lorenzo had never given up hope of finding his sisters. The only person who took any interest in helping him was a wealthy private citizen named Henry Grinnell and a nephew who had taken it upon himself to rescue the 2 girls.

When Olive was 16 in 1856, a Yuma Indian messenger arrived at the Mojave village with a message from authorities at Fort Yuma. The post commander had heard rumors they had a white girl being held captive and requested her return. The army sent blankets and horses for her release.

It took 20 days to cover the distance back to Fort Yuma. But, before Olive was willing to enter the fort she asked for some decent clothing as she was wearing only a dress made of grass and bark. Once she felt presentable she entered to a throng of cheering people. When she was told her brother was alive and well she was overjoyed. Their heart wrenching reunion made headlines across the West.

Olive later married Major John Brant Fairchild, a former Indian fighter and banker, in 1865 at Rochester, NY. After their marriage,the couple moved to Detroit, spending several years in Michigan, then on to Sherman, Texas, where they lived for about 30 years. They both died in Sherman and are interred at West Hill Cemetery. Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 21, 1903, at the age of 65. The town of Oatman, Arizona, is named after her.

Today a white cross stands in grim remembrance where the Oatman family was massacred. At Oatman Flats, Arizona is a headstone which reads: "In Memory of the Oatman Family and Members of the Pioneers Massacred by Indians in 1851..."

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      Birdhouses 10 months ago

      Having lived in Oatman, Arizona I knew the story well. You have recited it in the same manner it which it is known by the residents of that fine little community. Oatman is also known for the burros that roam it's streets.

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      Tammy 3 years ago

      Very informative story. Most of the West was settled by brave Mormon families seeking a place to find religious freedom. And many died from their travels and hardships. This is a great story of the Oatman family.

    • JY3502 profile image
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      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I know there is still a lot of prejudice in areas where they live.

    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 5 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

      When I was growing up we were never taught about the suffering we put the Native Americans through. I learned about it in college. Do you know if that's changed at all?

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you, so very much. This one took some effort.

    • Loi-Renee profile image

      Loi-Renee 5 years ago from Jamaica

      This was a really captivating story. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I aim to please. Thanks for the comments and votes.

    • JasonCulley profile image

      JasonCulley 5 years ago from Cheyenne, WY

      Very interesting story. Great HUB. Thanks!

    • gunsock profile image

      gunsock 5 years ago from South Coast of England

      Great story, well told. Thank you!