Olive and Mary Outman Driven North

While Lorenzo was making his weary way along the road, his sisters, Olive and Mary, were being driven across the desert north of the Gila by the Indians. As soon as the work of plunder was completed the savages moved away a short distance, made a fire, and prepared a supper of bean soup and ash baked bread. The girls could not eat. After the meal the Indians diverted themselves by terrifying little Mary. They would threaten and scowl at her until, in an agony of nervous fear, she would run to her sister’s arms, sobbing wildly. Then they would brandish their clubs and frighten her into silence. For an hour they remained at this place, from which the children could see the bows of the wagon, in the moonlight, marking the spot of the massacre. They were oppressed with grief and suspense. The events of the past hour were so horrible that older persons might well have been overwhelmed by them. All their kindred – father, mother, sisters, and brothers – they had seen fall beneath the clubs of their captors. For themselves was absolute uncertainty as to their future fate, with all the apprehensions of torture that their childish knowledge of Indian customs could bring them. Another element of torture was soon to be added – it was bodily suffering. The Indians took from them their hats and shoes, and started on their march. An Indian led; the two captives followed; the other Indians formed the rearguard. Across the desert they hurried, the tender feet of the captives being bruised at every step. Sharp stones gashed them, and cactus thorns pierced them cruelly. After several hours Mary sank down and refused to go farther. Blows and threats had no effect upon her. She said she had rather die than live. At length one of the Indians threw her across his back, and the march was resumed. Olive became so faint and weary that she felt she could not go on, but the fear of being separated from her sister gave her superhuman energy. At noon of the following day they halted until the cattle were brought up, killed, and cut in pieces. In the afternoon they again started, and journeyed until ten o’clock at night. During this time the sufferings of the girls were lessened by having pieces of skin tied upon their feet. At daybreak they continued their march.

Near noon, as they were passing through a dark canon, a band of eleven Indians appeared, and approached them in great excitement. One of them drew his bow and let fly an arrow at Olive, which pierced her dress but did not harm her. As he fitted another to his bow the captors sprang forward and placed themselves before the girls, while one of them seized the would be assassin. It appeared that this man had lost a brother in a recent attack upon some whites, and had sworn to avenge himself upon the first white that he met. The captors, however, had other uses for their captives, and finally succeeded in getting rid of the avengers, though not until there had almost been a general battle. They travelled until midnight. In the morning they hurried on till they came to a village of low, thatched huts. The captives, suffering and exhausted by two hundred miles of cruel marching, were placed on a pile of brush, around which all the inhabitants of the village, about three hundred in number, whirled in a dance of exultation and savage joy. Throughout it they took every means of humiliating the captives, by striking them, throwing dirt upon them, and spitting in their faces. Their insults had but little effect on the wretched girls, who had now reached the stage of indifference and desperation. The only apprehension that troubled them was the fear of torture. This was dispelled on the succeeding day. The jubilee and feast were over. A night’s rest had somewhat refreshed the captives and eased their pains. They were set to work at the employments which must henceforth engage them. Their fate was now clear. They were slaves.

It would be difficult to imagine a more oppressive slavery than that in which they existed. The Tontos were a people of the most degraded character, with customs which added weight to the natural brutality of savagery. They had broken off from the tribes to the southeast during the flowery days of the Spanish power, and taken refuge in the wilderness, while their brethren remained to light the invaders. From the Coyoteros, so they told the girls, they had received an Apache name which means unruly, but this name had been corrupted by the Mexicans into the word tontos which means stupid or foolish. They were a connecting link between their fierce relatives on the east and the agricultural Mohaves on the west; they had neither the wild, warlike habits of the one, nor the good natured indolence of the others. Their women were obliged to do all the work, as in most of the tribes, and, to make their lot more unenviable, the Tontos had a theory that young females should not subsist on meat any more than was absolutely necessary to prevent starvation. In consequence their women of all ages were dwarfed and dried up, while their young girls frequently died from want of food. To these enslaved and half starved squaws the Oatman girls were sub-slaves, and they found them most cruel mistresses. They delighted in inventing new and unnecessary tasks, and at the least provocation beat the helpless children unmercifully. The girls quickly learned that the children of the tribe were their masters also, for the slightest complaint from one of these youngsters was the signal for a severe beating. All this, and their constant menial labor, had to be undergone on the most stinted allowance of food. Even in feast times the savages would contemptuously throw them refuse scraps of food, saying: “You have been fed too well; we will teach you to live on little.” They would have died of starvation if they had not appropriated for themselves, at every possible occasion, the roots and other food that they were ordered to gather for their owners.

Late in the fall of 1851 a party of Mohaves visited the village on a trading expedition, and some talk was had about a purchase of the captives. When about a year had elapsed from the time of their capture, a second delegation of Mohaves, five men and the daughter of the chief, came to the Tonto village to negotiate for them. The question of sale was in dispute for some hours, but on the morning after the arrival of the Mohaves the Tontos concluded to accept the price offered, which was two horses, three blankets, some vegetables, and some beads.

Another long and weary march was before the girls, but what they suffered now was not a result of spite. The chief’s daughter walked all the way, carrying a roll of blankets that she shared each night with the captives, while the two horses that remained to the party were carrying the gentlemen. For eleven days they trudged along, over rugged mountains and across dusty deserts, until they reached the Mohave valley, on the Colorado River. A beautiful valley it appears to the wayworn traveler across the desert, with the broad river gleaming beyond through its fringe of willows and cottonwood, and patches of grass relieving the brown, dead color that has become so tiresome. Here dwelt the new owners of the slaves. As masters they were far preferable to the Tontos. They seemed to lack much of that savage trait of torturing for the pleasure of seeing pain. They lived in rude but comfortable huts, made of logs set on end, thatched on three sides, and covered with mud roofs. These were usually surrounded by rows of cottonwood trees and plots of grass, and near them were placed cylindrical osier granaries in which they stored their edibles. The Mohaves raised wheat, corn, melons, and vegetables. They did not till the ground, but planted everything in hills scraped up by their fingers, the annual overflow of the Colorado keeping the valley in a state of great fertility. The girls were obliged to work much as before, but they had more to eat and were beaten less.

One day the Mohaves heard the girls singing, and were curious about this accomplishment of their slaves. At their request the girls sang several songs. Afterwards they were frequently importuned to sing, and were usually rewarded for complying with strings of beads, pieces of red flannel, and other gifts that hare a value to the savage. The flannel was valuable to the girls also, enough of it being acquired to make additions to their very limited wardrobes. The Indians often asked them questions about the whites; and though they usually concluded their interviews by telling the captives that they were outrageous liars, like all the Americans, they listened with apparent interest to the descriptions of the white man’s habits. The idea of a heaven above the stars struck them as an especially foolish thing, because the heavenly hosts would necessarily all drop out. They also questioned the girls ‘ closely as to their contentment with their lot, and professed to be fearful that they would attempt to escape. Finally, they imparted the unwelcome information that they were about to tattoo the girls’ faces, so that they would know them wherever they found them. The Mohaves tattoo their own women only when they marry, marking them with vertical blue lines on the chin, but Miss Oatman stated that their markings were different from those of the Mohave women, and that they were not treated as wives by their owners.

The chief labor of the girls, through the summer, was collecting mesquite (pronounced mez-kee-tay’ by the natives) beans and storing them in the granaries. There are two kinds of mesquite. The common, or straight pod, is very similar to the common honey locust in growth, foliage, and the armor of sharp spines. It occurs as a shrub, in dense thickets, or as a tree from ten to forty feet high. It is invaluable to the inhabitants of Arizona for fuel, principally furnished by the roots, which remain intact long after the tree has disappeared, and are found everywhere. The pods or beans, when ripe, contain a sweet, mealy pulp, which, when dried and powdered, is used for sweetening pinole (ground parched corn), or as a food direct. The other is called the tornillo, or screw-pod mesquite. It is similar to the first, except that the beans are twisted in a close spiral, resembling a screw. During the spring, when the winter supplies had been exhausted and the new growth was not matured sufficiently for food, there was ordinarily destitution among the Mohaves. Their chief reliance was in gleaning the mesquites from which beans had been gathered in the preceding autumn. The summer of 1853 brought a failure of crops to them, and they looked forward to the approaching winter with well grounded fears of a famine. The unhappy slaves were taxed to their utmost to gather provisions, and the failure to return in the evening with loaded baskets was sure to be paid by a beating. Mary was fast failing under this barbarous life, and the starvation which was peculiarly their lot. She wasted away to gauntness, and became more and more feeble. As starvation became more imminent, those of the Indians who were able to travel made a journey of sixty miles in search of food. Mary tried to accompany them, but gave out and went back. The party secured a tolerable supply of food, but it was soon exhausted. The Indians were growing so desperate that savage selfishness prevailed. Each one provided strictly for himself and ate all he could get. They would let their nearest kin starve, and then rend the air with the dismal howling that their customs make appropriate in time of death.

Mary became helpless and Olive was distracted. She was obliged to go away to procure food, yet she feared to leave her sister. The Indians would give Mary nothing to eat, and some of them advocated killing her in order that Olive might have more time to procure food for them. When Olive found anything to eat the Indians would take it from her, if they saw it. Whole days passed when neither of them had a morsel. Their pangs of hunger were almost beyond endurance, and their strength was ebbing. Olive could remain on her feet but a short time, while Mary was fast approaching death.

She fixed all her thoughts on a future life – a reunion with her father and mother, her sisters and brothers, in a beautiful land where pain and want would never come. Every day, so long as her strength would permit her, she sang the hymns that were used in the Sabbath schools of thirty-five years ago. Wan and weak, with flesh wasted and skin drawn tightly over her bones, with unnatural fires gleaming in her eyes, her voice would carry, pure and clear, the words of “Jesus, lover of my soul,” or, “The day is past and gone,” until she seemed some supernatural being, striving to throw off the covering that held her, and rise above the earth. The Indians, even those who thought it an injury to themselves for her to live, would gather about her and stand enchained by the weird sight, although close by their relatives were dying unheeded. At times some of them would be overwhelmed with unknown emotions, and give way to outbursts of weeping and moaning as they looked on the dying girl. Death came at last, and she passed to the abode of spirits peacefully and quietly, as if sinking to sleep. Instead of burning her body, as is their custom, they gave Olive the privilege of burying her remains in the little garden spot that had been set off for their use.

Oppressed by a terrible feeling of loneliness, Olive lived on through the famine. The next year was one of plenty, but it brought her a new torture. When the growth of the year had advanced sufficiently to furnish the Mohaves with food, and they had recovered strength and spirit, they decided to make an expedition against the Cocopahs. This was the first one that they had undertaken since the purchase of the captives, and Olive was informed that in case any of the warriors were killed she would be sacrificed, in accordance with their custom, which requires a warrior who falls in battle to be furnished with a slave in Hippoweka – the spirit land. For five months the war party was absent. For five months Olive was tortured by the constant contemplation of the thread on which her life depended. There seemed hardly a possibility that all the war party would return, for the Cocopahs were reported to have been joined by new and powerful allies since the Mohaves last attacked them. At length, one day, as she was gathering roots, she saw a messenger coming to the village.

He brought news, but of what? She knew not what to do. For a moment she thought of flight, but abandoned that chance as hopeless. In desperation she went to the village to learn her fate. She sat in silence through the convening and opening of a council, that Indian decorum made necessary before the news was told. At length the messenger spoke. The Mohaves were returning in triumph with five prisoners. None of them had been killed. Tears of joy and relief rolled down the poor girl’s cheeks, and she bowed her head in thankfulness for her deliverance.

Soon after this, Olive was forced to behold a shocking spectacle. The captive Cocopahs were all young girls but one, who was a woman about twenty-five years of age and unusually beautiful. She appeared almost frantic with grief. Olive succeeded in communicating with her, and learned that her distress was caused by her separation from her husband and infant child. Their village had been attacked in the night, and the Cocopahs had fled. As she ran along, her husband took the child from her arms and ran ahead. She followed, but was overtaken. After remaining in the Mohave village for a week, she made her escape in the night. She swam down the river for several miles and concealed herself in a willow thicket during the day. In this way she swam about one hundred and thirty miles down the Colorado, in less than a week, travelling only at night. She had passed almost through the country of the Yumas, when one day a Yuma warrior discovered her lying under a shelving rock near the river. He secured her, and, as obliged by the intertribal relations, brought her back to the Mohaves. The Mohaves crucified her. That is one thing that the Arizona Indians have learned from missionaries, at any rate, and they seem to think it an improvement on their own barbarities. She was raised to the crossbeam, about eight feet above the ground, and her hands fastened by driving coarse wooden pegs through them. Similar pegs were driven through her feet. Her head was tied to the upright by strings of bark stuck full of thorns. The other captives and Olive were then brought before her and told to behold the fate that awaited them if they attempted to escape. For two hours the unfortunate lived, the Mohaves meanwhile dancing about her, shooting her with arrows, and mangling her body with burning brands. After death they took her down and burned her body on a funeral pyre.

After this Olive gave up all thought of escape. She lived on in the usual way, though with one improvement; the Mohaves had been awakened to the necessity of greater care in their planting, by the famine of 1853, and there was no more suffering from want of food. In February, 1856, she was startled to hear that a Yuma Indian had arrived in the village with a message from the fort, demanding her release. This assistance had come from an unexpected source. When Lorenzo Oatman reached Camp Yuma, his story attracted the sympathy of a number of officers and men, who desired to attempt the rescue of his sisters, but the garrison was soon to move and there was no time for any protracted search. Colonel Heintzelman, the commander, sent out a small force under Captain Davis and Lieutenant Mowry, but they failed to find the captives. In June the garrison removed to San Diego, except about a dozen men, who were left to guard the ferry. In a short time these men were driven away by the Yumas, who retained control of the ferry for several months.

A chief named Antonio Garra, a man of resources and ability, undertook to unite the Yumas and Coahuillas, of Southern California, in an alliance to sweep the Americans from the country. This failed through the treachery of Juan Antonio, a Coahuilla chieftain, in whom Garra trusted. Colonel Heintzelman was sent back to chastise them, a work that required over a year. By October, 1852, Garra was killed and the Yumas subdued. Lorenzo had gone to San Francisco with Dr. Hewitt. He remained there and in the mines for three years, trying to devise some plan to rescue his sisters; but though he received much sympathy, he could get no material assistance. In October, 1854, he went to Los Angeles, still intent on this object. He joined several parties of prospectors organized to search for gold beyond the Colorado, and one of them penetrated the country bordering on Bill Williams Fork in 1855, but without getting any trace of the captive girls. In December of the same year he searched in Southern California for them, but with no success. He then tried the newspapers, by which he succeeded in arousing public sympathy somewhat, and in learning that his sister was reported to be a captive among the Mohaves. Thereupon he prepared a petition to Governor Johnson, of California, for men and means to recover her, which was signed by many of the people of Los Angeles County. The governor replied that he had no authority to grant the request, and referred him to the Indian Department. He prepared a memorial to the Indian Department and forwarded it about the first of February, 1850.

During this time an unknown friend was at work. In 1853 there came to Fort Yuma, as carpenter, a Mr. Grinnell, who was known to the Indians as “Carpintero” on account of his occupation. He was a nephew of Henry Grinnell, whose princely philanthropy fitted out the Advance and Rescue for De Haven’s search after Sir John Franklin’s exploring party. A similar spirit of humanity actuated the humble carpenter, and led him to take a lively interest in the fate of the Oatman girls. He continually questioned emigrants and Indians for tidings of them. One night in January, 1856, a friendly Indian, named Francisco, came to his tent and asked him: “Carpintero, what is this you say so much about two Americanos among the Indians?” Grinnell informed him that the whites well knew of the existence of the girls and would certainly make war upon the Indians unless they were surrendered. Producing a copy of the Los Angeles Star in which Lorenzo had made his first published appeal for assistance, Grinnell translated the article to Francisco, and, still appearing to read, told him that a large army was being prepared which would annihilate the Mohaves and all tribes who assisted them in concealing the captives. Francisco was visibly impressed. Grinnell kept him in his tent all that night, and in the morning took him to Colonel Burke, who commanded the fort. Francisco said: “You give me four blankets and some beads, and I will bring her in just twenty days, when the sun is there,” indicating about four o’clock in the afternoon. Burke thought it was some trickery on the part of the Indian, but Grinnell said to give him the goods and charge them to him. The goods were furnished and Francisco departed.

The arrival of Francisco caused no little tumult in the Mohave village. A council was called and Olive was shut up in a distant part of the valley. Francisco urged her release eloquently, but the Mohaves were not yet acquainted with the power of American arms, besides feeling strong in their remote location. Late at night the council broke up with a refusal to surrender her, and an order to Francisco to cross the river and return no more on penalty of torture. He crossed the river but did not abandon his purpose. All night he argued with the chiefs on that side and in the morning they asked him to return with them, saying they would do all they could to procure her surrender. They went back, and, after some consultation, another council was called, which Olive was permitted to attend. The Mohaves had devised a new project. They stained her skin and ordered her, on pain of death, not to speak to Francisco in American, Mohave, or any other language that he could understand. To him they represented that she was an Indian of a distant tribe. She summoned all her courage and told him who she was and what they had ordered her to do. Francisco sprang from his seat in fury. He launched upon the Mohaves a most vehement and eloquent address, he reproached them for their attempted deception; told them the whites knew that the girl was there; that they would destroy the Mohaves and the Yumas if she were not given tip; that the Yumas had fought the Americans for many months and knew that they were more powerful than all the Indian tribes; that he had come to them out of mercy for his own tribe; and that they had endangered their own lives and those of their friends the Yumas by this treachery. To Olive he gave the following note, which she deciphered with much difficulty:

“Francisco, Yuma Indian, bearer of this, goes to the Mohave nation to obtain a white woman there, named Olivia. It is desirable she should come to this post, or send her reasons why she does not wish to come.
Martin Burke, Lieut. Col. Commanding
Headquarters, Fort Yuma, Cal., 27th January, 1856

The Mohaves wanted to know what was in this letter, Olive told them, and also informed them that the Americans would certainly send an army to destroy them if they did not let her go with Francisco. The Mohaves began to be cowed. They proposed that they should kill Olive and that Francisco should report her as dead, but this Francisco refused to do. The night dragged on in that fierce debate, where a feather’s weight might give the captive liberty or doom her to death. After sunrise Francisco and Olive were told to retire, and when called back they were informed that the Mohaves had decided to surrender her. Unable to repress her emotion, Olive burst into tears. She was not allowed to take any mementoes with her. They took away even the beads and cloth that had been given to her and Mary for singing. She had only the privilege of a last visit to her sister’s grave. There were few preparations to make. They got breakfast, secured a little food, and started. They were accompanied by Francisco’s brother and two cousins, who had come with him, and by the chiefs daughter, who went to the fort to obtain a horse that Francisco had promised to her father.

The twentieth day arrived and found Grinnell waiting patiently. Ho had been the subject of many jests by his comrades, who thought that Francisco had cleverly worked on his sympathies to the extent of the goods furnished him. At noon three Yumas appeared and announced that Francisco was coming. “Is the girl with him?” asked Grinnell, eagerly. “Francisco will come here when the sun is there,” answered the Indians, indicating the point Francisco had designated, and no more satisfaction could be had from them. The sun crept down the west never so slowly. As the hour neared, Grinnell’s strained eyes caught sight of three Indian men and two women approaching the ferry, on the opposite side of the river. He sprang forward with the glad shout:

“They have come; the captive girl is here!” Olive, who did not wish to come to the fort in her scanty bark dress, was quickly furnished with clothing by an officer’s wife, and was soon presented to the commander amid wild enthusiasm. Men cheered, cannons boomed, and the assembled Yumas, carried away by the general joy, gave vent to shrill whoops. There remained a yet more affecting meeting. Two days after sending his memorial to the Indian Department, a friend handed Lorenzo a copy of the Los Angeles Star containing a brief statement of Olive’s recovery. He mounted a horse and hastened to the editor. The report was reliable. It was based on a letter from Colonel Burke. A kind friend furnished him with transportation and accompanied him to Fort Yuma. Ten days of riding, along the western slope and across the Colorado desert, and the brother and sister were clasped in a fond embrace. What a meeting! Five years before they separated amid the groans of their dying kindred, in the moonlight, on the desert. Now they meet, the sole survivors, after weary days and nights of hardship and despair, in safety, and surrounded by friends. Tears came unbidden to the eyes of strong men who stood about them, but they were not ashamed to weep.

There remains but little more to tell. Lorenzo and Olive returned to Los Angeles, and thence went to Southern Oregon, to live with a cousin who heard of their trials and invited them to make his home their own. They afterwards attended school in the Santa Clara Valley, in California, and in 1858 removed to New York. Francisco received praise and reward from the whites, and this led the Yumas to make him a chief. He was commonly known as El Sol Francisco, possibly from his indicating the time of his return by the sun. He was very arrogant in his new station, but remained friendly to the whites while he lived. In 1857 the Yumas and Mohaves determined on a grand expedition against the Maricopas. They raised a large band, including a number of Yampais and Diegenos, and attacked the Maricopa villages about the first of September. They burned some houses, and killed some women and children, but a swift vengeance overtook them. The Pimas and Maricopas hastily congregated, and were reinforced by Papagos until their number were about equal to those of the invaders. At Maricopa Wells they fought a great battle, in which the river Indians were defeated with a loss of over two hundred warriors. Out of seventy-five Yuma warriors who went to battle only three returned alive. Francisco fell on this field, killed, it is said, by his own men, who thought he had brought disaster on them by befriending the whites. The Yumas and about half of the Mohave still remain along the Colorado. They are not under charge of any agent, and are subdued to a state of abject servility. The remainder of the Mohave and most of the Chemehueves are on the Colorado River reservation and are commonly known as the Colorado River Indians. The Tontos remained at large for many years, but at length, reduced by war and disease to less than seven hundred, they were placed on the White Mountain reservation in Arizona. They never acquired any weapons, except a few knives and lances, and were never formidable. The Pimas and Maricopa have had a reservation set off for them, including their cultivated lands on the Gila, and still remain there. The Papagos have a reservation of 6000 acres, including San Xavier del Bac. These three tribes have always remained friendly, and have been at times the only bulwarks of the whites against tho hostile Apaches. They offered to raise a regiment for the Union during the civil war, but the government contented itself with furnishing them arms to fight the Apaches, as scouts and guides.

After tho remains of the Oatmans were covered up by Wilder and Kelly, they were dug out by coyotes, and lay scattered until the arrival of Dr. Webb’s party of the Mexican Boundary Commission, a few months later. They were then reinterred. A second time they were dug up by the desert scavengers and scattered over the mesa. In 1854 they were again gathered by Mr. Poston, an early settler of Arizona, and buried in the flat below the scene of the massacre. A small enclosure marks the spot, and a board with a rudely carved inscription tells the traveler that there are buried the remains of the unfortunate family whose terrible calamity gave a name to Oatman Flat.


Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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