The Blue Tattoo

The Life of Olive Oatman


Copyright © 2009 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8032-1148-3

Chapter One


"It was starvation to stay, and almost inevitable disaster to go forward." | J. ROSS BROWNE, "A Tour through Arizona"

The Oatman family spent their last night together marooned on a tiny island surrounded by quicksand in the Gila River in Mexico. California bound, they had left their farm in Illinois in May of 1850, joined twenty other families in Missouri in July, and by February of 1851, they were alone - seven children and their parents, Royce and Mary Ann - in what would become southwestern Arizona, trying to cross the swollen Gila in three-foot water and failing miserably as their cattle foundered on the river floor. An island little bigger than a sand bar would have to do for the night. Royce unhitched the oxen, led them to the land, then waded across the river to gather firewood. With the help of her older children, Mary Ann unloaded supplies and prepared a dinner of bean soup and stale bread, which the family ate by moonlight.

Their situation was desperate. Their horse had died, and their scant remaining cattle were so weak that some of the children, aged two to seventeen, had been forced to walk long stretches of their route from Maricopa Wells, eighty miles back. They were on a barely blazed trail eroded by recent storms. The food they'd packed under the floor of their prairie schooners before starting west was nearly spent - enough jerked meat and dried fruit, flour, meal, bacon, and beans to last eighteen months, or so they'd thought. They had abandoned one of their wagons in New Mexico after their oxen had dwindled to the point where they had no way to pull it. They had no money, nothing to trade, and over one hundred miles to go across the scorched desert before they would reach Fort Yuma, an army post just over the brand new California border. Soon they would have another mouth to feed: Mary Ann was nearly nine months pregnant.

Still, the Oatmans feared one thing more than famine: Indians. Before leaving Maricopa Wells, they had been warned that the Apaches were attacking emigrants up and down the Gila, and their fellow pioneers had urged them to stay. But a famine there made prospects for survival slim, so when a traveling entomologist named John LeConte arrived from Fort Yuma, loaded with fossils and beetle specimens, saying he had seen no trace of Indians on the trail, Royce decided to move on, leaving the remaining two families in his party behind, shaking their heads.

Seven days after the Oatmans left Maricopa Wells, LeConte overtook them on his return to Fort Yuma. By now Royce recognized that his supplies and cattle couldn't possibly carry the family through to Yuma. He wrote a letter to the commander of the fort, asking for help, and LeConte promised to deliver it. "I am under the necessity of calling upon you for assistance," he pleaded, requesting horses and harnesses. "There is my wife & seven children and without help sir I am confident we must perrish [sic]."

The next day, thirty miles down the trail, LeConte and his Mexican guide met a band of Indians, four of whom distracted the two men at their camp by feigning friendship and making small talk while others stole their horses from a nearby valley. Concerned that the Oatman rescue would be delayed for days while he walked the remaining one hundred miles to Fort Yuma, LeConte posted a card on a tree warning the family about the Indians.

Though he didn't mention LeConte's card to the children, Royce had probably seen it by the time they reached the Gila, where he began to fray. At the start of the trip he believed that, treated well, Indians were inherently friendly, and he even blamed their violence on cruel treatment by whites. When he'd worked as a traveling merchant in Iowa, Royce had mastered an attitude of unflappable cool to placate them, and his approach had always worked. But this journey had tested his theory. Some Indians had shared his tobacco and traded with him; others had stolen his cattle or pressured him into bartering irreplaceable pots and pans along with beans and bread. One night, as he and his fellow emigrants camped on the Arkansas River, Apaches on the other side had massacred a group traveling in a government expedition and stolen a hundred mules. Now the information he'd chosen to ignore back in Maricopa Wells was roiling in his mind: though LeConte hadn't been assaulted by Indians himself, he had said Apaches were moving in the hills, and Royce knew they were much more likely to menace a family traveling alone than members of a wagon train.

That night, a high wind swept river water onto the two-hundred-square-foot island, threatening to snuff out the fire and forcing the family to move its camp repeatedly. No one, including the spooked cattle, got much sleep. Fifteen-year-old Lorenzo spent much of the night tending to the frightened animals while the older children shivered around the fire and their parents conferred inside the wagon. Mary Ann, who had her own worries, not the least of which was kicking inside her, comforted Royce as he broke down and wept for a solid hour, lamenting the dangerous situation he had brought his family into. She assured him he was simply exhausted and his mind was working overtime. Only seventeen-year-old Lucy, the eldest, heard her father cry.

The gravity of the situation hadn't fully impressed Olive and her younger siblings, Royce Jr., eleven, Mary Ann, seven, and Charity Ann, five, who blithely fantasized about what they would do if Apaches attacked them. One would run; another would "fight and die fighting"; another would hold them off with a gun or a club.

"Well there is one thing," said fourteen-year-old Olive, a dark-haired beauty with deep-set eyes and a serious brow. "I shall not be taken by these miserable brutes. I will fight as long as I can, and if I see that I am about to be taken, I will kill myself." Shortly after dawn, the family reloaded their wagon, hitched the cattle again, forded the river, and stopped to let their team graze. At noon they continued, but the trail led to a lime rock mesa where the beleaguered oxen balked at the steep ascent. The Oatmans unpacked the wagon and began hand-carrying their belongings up the two-hundred-foot-tall bluff. That day, Lucy confided in Lorenzo, describing Royce's tears the night before, and together they noted a change in their forty-one-year-old father. Five feet tall, solidly built, and bearded, Royce was a man who exuded confidence and readily expressed his feelings. Restless and drawn to novelty, he jumped into new situations with conviction and - some said - arrogance. Until now, despite everything, he had seemed optimistic. But as he mounted the hill, he looked like a defeated man. Royce sat on a rock, turned to his wife and said, "Mother, in the name of God, I know something terrible is about to happen."

After hauling the first load of supplies, the Oatmans stopped for lunch, sitting atop black lava rocks and looking out at the mountains looming north and east of the Gila River. It was a lunar landscape, a parched expanse stippled with patches of dried grass and studded with Saguaro cacti, some as many as two hundred years old, standing alone and in clusters, like alien sentries lifting their spiky arms to the sun. Red plumes of flowering ocotillo shot up from gangly stalks, and golden brittlebush bloomed in low clusters across the desert floor. The region was populated by a network of Indians, including friendly Pimas, Maricopas, and Tohono O'odhams (then called Papagos). The Yavapais, hunter-gatherers with links to the Apaches, roamed to the north, carrying bows, arrows, and clubs. Two years later, this stretch of northern Mexico would be absorbed into the territory of New Mexico with the signing of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, mainly because it contained the only navigable southern route to California, running just south of the Gila. Called Cooke's Wagon Road, it was the road the Oatmans now traveled.

Once the second load had been carried up, Royce started back down the slope, and the family helped the bony cattle pull the empty wagon to the top to be repacked. It was late afternoon. They had advanced just a few miles since dawn and planned to continue in cooler weather at dusk to ease the trip for the animals. By now the Oatmans had spent hours getting their provisions up the hill and reloaded. The sun was hot and there was no sound, save for the lowing of the disgruntled livestock. "Thank God, we are on our road safe," Mary Ann said to her husband. "There is no appearance of danger." Lorenzo studied his father, who glumly repacked the wagon. When the boy turned and glanced back down the hill, he saw movement: a procession of Indians, their wolf-skin skirts gently flapping against their thighs, meandering up the incline from the west. They were Yavapais - possibly the same group that had bamboozled LeConte and his guide a day or two before. When Lorenzo turned to his father and pointed, he found Royce's reaction as alarming as he did the arrival of the Indians themselves: his face reddened then went pale, and Lorenzo saw from his father's twitching mouth that he could barely control his panic. The other family members turned to look. Olive counted nineteen Indians.

Royce finally found his voice. "Do not be alarmed," he said. "The Indians won't harm you." It was the last thing he would say to his family. As they poured into the camp, Royce addressed the Yavapais in broken Spanish, the lingua franca of the Southwest, inviting them to sit down. They asked for tobacco; he lit a pipe and shared it with them. The Yavapais glared nervously around the mesa as they smoked, exchanging knowing glances even as they claimed they had come in peace. When they requested food, Royce resisted, explaining that if he fed them, his family would starve. Still, they insisted. He gave them bread and they demanded more, standing up and rummaging around inside the wagon themselves. When Royce again refused, they stepped aside and formed a circle, conferring in their own language.

Lorenzo stood near the Indians as they spoke while his father reorganized the wagon, keeping an eye on the intruders and struggling to conceal his terror. Royce had always believed that if you didn't show fear around Indians, they wouldn't attack, but he was now far beyond feigning self-possession. Mary Ann climbed inside the wagon, taking three-year-old Roland with her. Lucy and Olive stood to one side near the three younger children. Little Mary Ann sat on a nearby rock holding the rope to the cattle teams between her knees, waiting. They were ready to go.

It took mere minutes for the Yavapais to bludgeon most of the family to death. Pulling knives and war clubs from their skirts, they jumped, shrieking, and assaulted Royce first then clubbed Lorenzo on the back of the head until he fell face down in the dirt, bleeding from his ears. They pushed Olive aside to get to her mother, the baby, and Charity Ann. Eleven-year-old Royce Jr. stood mute with shock until a single blow took him writhing to the ground. Untouched, Mary Ann crumpled, crying into her hands, the rope at her feet, on the other side of the wagon. Olive took in the spectacle and fainted.

"When I recovered my thoughts," she later wrote, "I could hardly realize where I was ... and thought I was probably dying. I knew that all, or probably all the family had been murdered; thus bewildered, confused, half conscious and half insensible I remained a short time, I know not how long.... Occasionally a low, piteous moan would come from some one of the family as in a dying state. I distinguished the groans of my poor mother, and sprang wildly toward her, but was held back by the merciless savage holding me in his cruel grasp, and lifting a club over my head, threatening me in the most taunting, barbarous manner." It was an empty gesture: she and Mary Ann would be spared.

For the next hour, Olive and Mary Ann watched as their attackers ransacked the wagon and looted the bodies of the dead and dying. Lorenzo stirred as they yanked off his hat and shoes, so the Yavapais dragged him by the feet to the edge of the mesa and threw him off. Olive turned away to avoid seeing his head dashed against the rocks. They ripped the cover off the wagon, removed parts of the wheels, unhitched the teams, broke open boxes, and packed up what food they could carry, including two sacks of smoked beef Royce hadn't offered them. Marveling at the odd domestic conveniences they found in the white man's wagon, they pulled out a duvet and tore it open, releasing the down to the wind. Olive watched the feathers float to the ground and blow along the dusty mesa, sticking to the carnage of the family she would leave behind.

With a shove, Olive and Mary Ann were driven down the hill, barefoot, to begin a journey of about sixty miles over four days.9 As she stumbled forward, searing her feet in the sand and sweating clear through the bodice of her dress, Olive wished the Yavapais would kill her too, but there was Mary Ann, crying, drooling, and tripping along behind her.

Olive's life as a frontier woman had begun.

Chapter Two

Indian Country "The [Gila River area is] so utterly desolate, desert, and Godforsaken, that Kit Carson says a wolf could not make his living upon it." | U.S. Representative THOMAS HART BENTON addressing the house of representatives, June 26, 1854

Forced to discard their shoes to avoid leaving a recognizable trail, the Oatman girls found themselves being marched barefoot at warrior speed back across the river and through a dark ravine to an Indian camp in the hills. They traveled in two groups: one leading the captives, the other the animals. At the camp, the Indians slaughtered a cow and cooked the meat over a fire made with flint and wild cotton, then they baked dough made from the Oatmans' flour and soaked it in bean soup. They scornfully offered the food to the girls, perhaps mocking Royce's claim that he had had no food. But they couldn't eat. They watched in silence, their stomachs rumbling, as their captors ate under the full moon, to the sound of coyotes crying in the hills. Olive's worst fear was that she and her sister would be burned alive. Mary Ann was more concerned about leaving her dead family behind.

After the meal, Olive and Mary Ann huddled together by the campfire, terrified, as the Yavapais jeered at them - especially Mary Ann. "When her feelings became uncontrollable," Olive recalled, "she would hide her head in my arms, and most piteously sob aloud, but she was immediately hushed by the brandishing of a war club over her head."

The Yavapais periodically pointed at the mesa in the distance, where Olive could still see the exposed bows of the Oatman wagon, stripped of its covering. "Mangled as I knew they were," she said, "I longed to go back and take one look, one long, last farewell look in the faces of my parents." She remembered the impossibly trusting expressions of the little ones, Charity Ann and Roland, when Royce Sr. had told them not to fear the Indians, and she recalled how Royce Jr. had convulsed as he died.

Wary of being discovered by whites near the site of the massacre, the Yavapais pushed on an hour later. Tears stung Olive's eyes when she looked back to see that the ravaged wagon - the last vestige of her former life - had disappeared into the mountains behind her. They traveled for several hours - too fast for the girls, whose feet were now bleeding. If the Oatmans slowed down, the Yavapais threatened them with their clubs. When Mary Ann gave up, collapsing in a heap, she was beaten and told she would be left behind. She asked Olive to let them kill her.

"I resolved," said Olive, "in the event of her being left, to cling to her, and thus compel them to dispose of us as they had the remainder of the family." She begged them not to leave her sister, and as she pleaded her case, one Indian removed his pack, handed it to another, threw Mary Ann on his back and continued on. Scrambling to keep pace, Olive watched Mary Ann surrender to exhaustion. "I managed to look into her face, and found her eyes opening and shutting alternately, as if in an effort to wake, but still unable to sleep; I spoke to her but received no answer. We could not converse without exciting the fiendish rage of our enemies."


Excerpted from The Blue Tattooby MARGOT MIFFLIN Copyright © 2009 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission.
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