Famous Crimes of the Arizona Territory

Oatman Massacre and Captivity of the Oatman Sisters,
as related to J. Ross Browne in 1864

From Adventures in the Apache Country by J. Ross Browne

Having started our escort and baggage-wagon on the road, a small party of us made a visit to the grave of the Oatman Family, whose sad history had been the theme of much conversation in camp since our arrival in this desolate region. A small enclosure near the road, with a board and inscription, marks the spot. The bones of the unfortunate emigrants were gathered up in 1854 by Mr. Poston, and buried here. He carved the inscription with his penknife on a piece of board from his wagon.

Although a detailed narrative of the massacre of the family and the captivity of the Oatman girls, written by the Rev. R. B. Stratton, was published a few years ago, a brief sketch of their eventful career, for which I am indebted in part to Mr. Stratton's narrative and in part to verbal details furnished me by Mr. Henry Grinnell at Fort Yuma, may derive a new interest from the drawings made by myself on the spot. It will show, at least, as well as anything I can offer, some of the causes which have so long retarded the progress of Arizona. [Grinnell was the man who ultimately rescued Olive Oatman from the Mojaves and so was able to give a first-hand report.]

Early in January, 1851, Mr. Royse Oatman and his family entered that portion of the New Mexican territory now called Arizona, in company with an emigrant party of which he was a member. Originally the party numbered some eighty or ninety persons, but disagreements had divided them during the journey; Mr. Oatman and his friends took the Cook[e] and Kearney route from the Rio Grande, with a train consisting of eight wagons and some twenty persons. After a series of continued hardships and disasters they reached Tucson entirely destitute of provisions, their stock broken down and most of them unable to proceed. At this point the lands were good, and inducements were offered them to remain awhile for the purpose of recruiting. The families of Oatman, Wilder, and Kelley resolved to push on, in the hope of being able soon to reach California, of which they had heard glowing accounts. They were very poorly provided for the journey; but to remain with their large families, under the discouraging prospect of supplies from crops not yet in the ground, seemed to them almost certain to result in starvation. With their jaded teams and a slender stock of provisions they pushed forward across the ninety-mile desert, and arrived about the middle of February at the Pimo villages, where they hoped to procure fresh supplies. It was a bad season for the Pimos. Their grain had nearly given out, and they had little or none to spare. Wilder and Kelley, however, concluded to remain in consequence of some bad accounts of Indian depredations on the road to Fort Yuma. Mr. Oatman saw nothing but utter destitution before him if he tarried among the Pimos, and he was sorely embarrassed what to do. His stock had been reduced to two yoke of cows and one of oxen, and was so jaded after the long journey from the Rio Grande that it was not probable they would hold out much longer. Nearly two hundred miles of a desert country lay between the Pimo villages and Fort Yuma; and beyond the Colorado there was still a terrible desert to pass before they could reach the southern counties of California. While suffering the tortures of anxiety and suspense, with the gloomiest prospect if they remained, a Dr. Lecount, who had extensively explored the Pacific coast, arrived from Fort Yuma, and reported the route safe. He had seen no hostile Indians, and heard of no recent depredations on the way. Encouraged by this information, Mr. Oatman determined to push forward at once for California; and accordingly, on the 11th of March, he set out with such slender outfit of provisions as he could procure. Traveling for seven days under great difficulties, his family on the verge of starvation, his cattle scarcely able to drag the wagon, he was overtaken by Dr. Lecount and a Mexican guide at a point below the Big Bend of the Gila. It was evident from the exhaustion of his team that he would be unable to reach Fort Yuma without assistance; Dr. Lecount agreed to hurry on as fast as possible and send back assistance from the Fort, which was still distant about ninety miles. The first night beyond the Oatman camp an attack was made by a band of Indians upon Lecount and his guide, and their animals stolen. Left on foot, without any means of subsistence, they were compelled to hurry on or starve. The Mexican was sent ahead to procure assistance. It was thirty miles back to the camp of the Oatmans. Lecount saw no alternative but to push on after his guide. He left a card, however, conspicuously fastened to a tree, stating what had occurred, and warning the emigrant party to be on the lookout for the Apaches. Although the Oatmans camped at the same spot, they failed to see the notice; or, as some suppose, Mr. Oatman saw it and concealed it from his family in order that they might not be uselessly alarmed. On the 18th of March they spent a dreadful night on a little sand island in the Gila River. A terrific storm blew the water up over them; their scanty supply of provisions was damaged, their blankets and clothing wet through, and the starving animals driven nearly frantic with fear. It was a wild and desolate place, many days' journey from any civilized abode. Hitherto Mr. Oatman, naturally a man of sanguine temperament, had borne every disaster and braved every danger cheerfully and without flinching, but the presentiment of some terrible doom seemed to have fallen upon him at this place, and he was seen by some of the family to shed tears while sitting in the wagon. The next day they proceeded but a short way, over a very rough mesa, when the jaded animals utterly refused to move. It was impossible to urge them on with the loaded wagon -- their strength was spent, and the faithful creatures seemed ready to lie down and die. By unloading the wagon, and pushing the wheels from time to time, the distressed emigrants succeeded at length in getting upon a narrow flat, bordering on the river, where they halted awhile to recruit.

The sketch above represents the upper entrance into this little valley. A curious mesa formation, not uncommon in Arizona, is seen on the right. The dark bluff resembling a colossal tower is the termination of the strata forming the mesa. From the summit, upon which stands, like some giant sentinel, a solitary suaro [saguaro], the vertical depth to the valley is about two hundred feet. A mile beyond the tower, the lower extremity of the valley or flat, through which the road runs, is abruptly walled in by nearly a similar embankment of natural fortifications, presenting apparently no place of exit. Upon a close inspection, however, a thin yellowish vein is seen winding up the brow of the precipice. This is the road to Fort Yuma; and the summit of the mesa is the scene of a tragedy which will be ever memorable in the history of Arizona.

Crossing an arroyo, or dry bed of a creek, near the bottom of the mesa, and passing through some dense thickets of mesquit and ocochilla [ocotillo], the struggling family found themselves at the foot of a rocky bluff more difficult of ascent than any they had yet attempted. Again they unloaded the wagon, and for hours they toiled to get their packs and wagon up the hill. To one who had passed over the road even in its present improved state it seems marvelous that they ever succeeded in making the ascent, weak and dispirited as they were; but success at length crowned their efforts, and they sat down upon the edge of the precipice to rest after their labors. Mr. Oatman was greatly dejected. It was observed by his family that he looked anxiously down the road over which they had passed, and that he never before seemed so utterly despondent. The sun, which had blazed upon them fiercely all day, was now just setting. They were beset by difficulties. Before them lay a vast desert; behind and to the right a wilderness of mountains. It was starvation to stay, and almost inevitable disaster to go forward. Mrs. Oatman, the noble wife and mother, always patient, hopeful, and enduring, busied herself in attending to the wants of her children and in uttering words of encouragement to her husband. He, however, seemed utterly overwhelmed with gloomy forebodings, and continued to look back upon the road, till suddenly an expression of indescribable horror was observed in his face, and the next moment a band of Indians was seen leisurely approaching along the road. The children perceiving instinctively that their father -- to whom they had always been accustomed to look for protection -- was agitated by no ordinary emotions, became alarmed; but he succeeded by a strong effort in maintaining an appearance of composure, and told them not to be afraid, that the Indians would not hurt them. It was a favorite theory of his that misconduct on the part of the whites was the cause of all trouble with Indians, and that by treating them generously and kindly, they would not prove ungrateful. Strange that one who had lived in frontier countries should so fatally misconstrue the character of the race!

When the Indians came up Mr. Oatman spoke to them kindly in Spanish, and motioned to them to sit down. They sat down, and asked for tobacco and pipes; which he gave them, and they smoked awhile in token of friendship. Then they asked for something to eat. Mr. Oatman told them his family were nearly starving -- that they had a long journey before them, and could ill spare any portion of their scanty stock. However, he gave them a little bread, and said he was sorry he could not give them more. After this they stood off a little and talked in a low tone, while Oatman set to work to reload the wagon. It was observed that the Indians looked anxiously down the road as if expecting some approaching party. Suddenly, with a terrific yell, they jumped in the air, and dashed with uplifted clubs upon the doomed family. Lorenzo, a boy fourteen years of age, was struck on the head and felled to the earth the first blow. Several of the savages rushed at Oatman, and he was seen for a moment struggling in their midst, but soon fell a mutilated corpse at their feet. Mrs. Oatman pressed her youngest child to her bosom, and struggled with a mother's heroic devotion to save it, shrieking in piercing accents, "Help! help! Oh, for the love of God, will nobody save us!" A few blows of the murderous clubs quickly silenced the poor mother and her babe; and in less than a minute the whole family, save Lorenzo, Olive, and Mary Anne, were lying dead or moaning in their death-struggles upon the ground. Olive, a girl sixteen years of age, and Mary Anne, a frail child of eleven, were dragged aside and held in the iron grasp of two Indians. Lorenzo, the boy, was stunned by the crushing blows which had fallen upon his head, and lay bleeding by the edge of the precipice. In his narrative he states that he soon recovered his consciousness, and distinctly heard the yells of the Apaches, mingled with the shrieks and dying groans of his parents. The savages, seeing him move, rifled his pockets and cast him over the precipice. Upon a careful examination of the spot -- as shown to the right of the road in the accompanying sketch -- I estimated that he must have fallen twenty feet before he struck the rocky slope of the mesa. That he was not instantly killed or maimed beyond recovery seems miraculous. Strange discordant sounds, he tells us, grated upon his ears, gradually dying away, and then he heard "strains of such sweet music as completely ravished his senses."

Thus he lay till reason became gradually restored, when, with great difficulty, he crept back up the hill. The sight of the dead bodies of his parents, brothers, and sisters, lying scattered about by the broken wagon, mutilated and bloody, was too much for him, and for a while he felt like one laboring under some horrible phantasm. He knew that his sisters Olive and Mary Anne had been taken captive, and the fate to which they were doomed was even more dreadful to him than the sight of the murdered family. Sick at heart, and faint from loss of blood, he turned away and crept toward the river. A burning thirst consumed him. He thought he was dying. With incredible difficulty, he reached the river, where he satisfied his thirst and slept a few hours. Thus refreshed, he resolved upon an attempt to reach the Pimo villages, which, though distant a hundred miles, was the nearest place known to him, where he could hope to procure relief. During the next two days he made his way along the road -- sometimes walking, sometimes creeping on his hands and knees, resting every few minutes when he could procure the friendly shelter of a bush; at times delirious, and constantly haunted by the horrible dread that he might again fall into the hands of the Indians. He grew weaker every mile from hunger, thirst, and fever; and, worn down at last, lay down to die. A strange noise aroused him from his stupor. Upon opening his eyes he found himself surrounded by wolves, panting and lapping their tongues for his blood. He shouted as loud as he could and threw stones at them. The nearest one he struck with his hand. Rising again, he pushed on, the wolves following closely at his heels. About noon of the second day, as he was passing through a dark canyon, two Pimo Indians, riding on fine American horses, appeared before him, and seeing so strange an object, fixed their arrows and raised their bows to shoot. He addressed them in Spanish, telling them he was an American, and begging them not to kill him; upon which they lowered their bows and manifested signs of interest and sympathy. When they learned what had happened they gave him some ash-baked bread and a gourd of water. Then they told him to await their return, and rode away. He stayed a little while, but fearful of treachery started on again. Wandering along the road till he came out of the canyon and overlooked the plain, his discerned some moving objects in the distance, which he speedily recognized as two white-covered wagons. He knew they must be American. Overcome by emotion, he sank to the ground unconscious of all his sufferings. Within an hour or less he was aroused by the voice of Wilder, saying, "My God, Lorenzo! What has happened?" The wagons contained the families of Wilder and Kelley, who had started for Fort Yuma. Next day the unhappy sufferer was safe among the Pimos. The emigrants halted a few days until he gained sufficient strength to join them. He traveled with Wilder and Kelley to Fort Yuma, which they reached after a journey of eight or ten days.

As soon as the Apaches had consummated the massacre of the Oatman family and plundered the wagon of its contents, they fled across the river, taking with them the two captives, Olive and Mary Anne. These unfortunate girls had seen their parents, brothers, and sisters cruelly murdered, and were now dragged away, bare-headed and shoeless, through a rude and desolate wilderness. Ferocious threats and even clubs were used to hurry them along. Their feet were lacerated, and their scanty clothes were torn from their bodies in passing over the rocky mesas and through the dense and thorny thickets. Sometimes the younger sister faltered from sheer lack of strength, but the savage wretches, unmindful of her sufferings, beat her and threatened to dispatch her at once if she lagged behind. She said it was useless to try any more -- she might as well die at once. A brutal wretch of the tribe seized her as she sank to the ground, and casting her across his back started off on a trot. Thus they traveled till late in the night, when they halted for a few hours. On the following day they met a rival party of Indians, among whom was one who had lost a brother at the hands of the whites. The strange Indians charged furiously upon the captives, and would have killed them but for the resolute interference of their captors, who were not willing to lose their services. On the third day of their journey, after the most incredible hardships, having traveled over two hundred miles, they came in sight of a cluster of low thatched huts down in a valley. This was the Apache rancheria. The captives were ushered in amid shouts and songs and wild dancing. For many days the savages indulged in their disgusting revels. The two young girls were placed in the center of a large circle, and compelled to witness sights so brutal and obscene that they were filled with dismay. They prayed that they might die before they should be subjected to the cruel fate that threatened them. The tribe consisted of about three hundred, and lived in the most abject condition of filth and poverty. From this time, for many months, they lived a life of servitude, working from morning till night for their captors, and subject to the most cruel and brutal treatment. The scantiest pittance of food was allowed them, and that they had to gather themselves. Often they were without food for two days at a time, save such roots and insects as they could secretly devour while gathering supplies for the lazy wretches who held them in bondage. The younger sister, Mary Anne, was of a weakly constitution, and gradually declined under the terrible hardships to which she was subjected. There is a touching pathos in the gentleness and fortitude with which she bore her sufferings. She seldom complained; and it was her custom when alone with her sister to sing hymns, and say she thought God would take pity on them some day and deliver them.

In March, 1852, the tribe with whom they lived was visited by a band of Mojaves, who were in the habit of trading with them, and a bargain was made for their purchase. The Mojaves remained a few days carousing with their friends, and then set out with their prisoners for the Colorado. A dreary journey of two hundred miles over a desert and mountainous country, during which they suffered hardships surpassing anything they had hitherto endured, brought them to the village of the Mojaves, where they were received with dancing, shouting, and jeering. The crops on the Colorado were short, and here again they suffered all the horrors of gradual starvation. Even some of the Indians died from insufficiency of food to sustain life. The gentle child, Mary Anne, worn down by the fatigues of the trip and want of nourishment, wasted away gradually till it was apparent to Olive she was dying. The sisters one evening sat hand in hand. Mary Anne sang one of the favorite hymns she had been taught by her mother. Then gazing with steadfast and loving eyes in her sister's face she said, "I have been a great deal of trouble to you, Olive. You will miss me for a while, but you will not have to work so hard when I am gone." The Indians gathered around in mysterious wonder. But the dying girl saw them not. A smile of ineffable happiness beamed upon her features. Peacefully she sank to rest in her sister's arms. Olive was left to bear the burden of life alone.

It is the custom of the Indians to burn their dead. Preparations were made for this ceremony in the present case; but the wife of the chief, pitying the distress of the surviving girl, prevailed upon him by much entreaty to let Olive bury the body according to the custom of her people. A grave was dug in a little patch of ground which had been cultivated by the sisters. They had often worked together in this little garden, and talked of their happy home before misfortune had come upon the family. All that was mortal of the gentle captive-girl was here consigned to the earth. Olive was thenceforth without friend or companion.

During these dreary years the brother, Lorenzo, had vainly striven to procure the rescue of his sisters. No aid was furnished by the military authorities at Fort Yuma. The only person there who took any interest in the matter was Mr. Henry Grinnell, a private citizen, who from 1853 up to the date of their rescue never ceased to exert his energies to that end. And here a singular coincidence occurs. While the Grinnell expeditions, organized through the generosity of a merchant-prince -- Mr. Grinnell of New York -- were prosecuting their search at the Arctic Circle for Sir John Franklin, an erratic nephew of the same Grinnell, who from love of adventure had wandered into the wilds of Arizona, was nobly devoting his energies to the rescue of two emigrant girls who had fallen into the hands of the Apaches. If there is nothing in blood, surely great hearts run in families; for here was one, without means, doing as much for the cause of humanity as the other with all the resources of fortune.

Through the services of Francisco, a Yuma Indian, the purchase of Olive from the Mojaves was effected by Mr. Grinnell, in February, 1856. She was brought down to a place on the Colorado at an appointed time. Here Mr. Grinnell met her. She was sitting on the ground, as he described the scene to me, with her face covered by her hands. So completely was she disguised by long exposure to the sun, by paint, tattooing, and costume, that he could not believe she was a white woman. When he spoke to her she made no answer, but cried and kept her face covered. It was not for several days after her arrival at Fort Yuma that she could utter more than a few words of broken English. Subsequently she met her brother, and was taken by him to his residence near Los Angeles. After that they lived a while in Oregon. I believe they now reside in the State of New York.

This account is excerpted from Ross Browne's Adventures in the Apache Country which is available as a free e-book. Download it Illustrated or Not Illustrated. Check the Free E-books page for a list of other books on Early Arizona history in e-book form.