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The Oatman Massacre.

THE OATMAN MASSACRE

BY BRIAN McGINTY UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS 2005, 258 PAGES, $27.95

There have been many massacres in the history of the American West, but few have captured the imagination of the public as that of the one that occurred in Arizona in 1851. There, approximately 120 miles east of the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers, the family of Roy Oatman, traveling alone, was attacked by southwestern Indians. The father was a cantankerous man seeking Bashan, a kind of promised land that a Mormonapostate preached. The usual claim was that Apaches were responsible for the killing, but this scholarly book argues against the certainty of that.

The Indians attacked the family, clubbing to death the father, the pregnant mother, and four of the children. They kidnapped two of the girls and left another boy as dead; although badly beaten, he eventually recovered. These were starvation days in the region as a drought had been prevalent and the younger of the two captured girls, only eight years old, eventually succumbed to malnutrition. Olive, her 13-year-old sister, survived and, after a year, was traded from one tribe to another, living approximately four years with the Mohave Indians. As was customary with that tribe, she was tattooed on the chin and arms. Shortly after the massacre, Olive's brother, the badly beaten Lorenzo, returned to a settlement to tell the horrible story. Eventually, the authorities at Fort Yuma secured Olive's release. (She was traded for a white horse.)

Olive learned to speak Mohave and was helpful in negotiations to gain her freedom. Interestingly, the women of the tribe did not want her to leave, while some of the braves wanted her killed. At the fort, she lived for a while with a laundress and then with a soldier's family. Meanwhile, Lorenzo learned of her release, as did a cousin in Oregon, and she was brought to the latter's home in the Rogue River Valley. There was considerable controversy about living with them since they were Methodists and Olive was brought up as a Mormon, although it was a renegade group. Religion was important as the U.S. was undergoing the "Second Awakening," in effect a religious revival movement. Her story was of great interest, particularly in the West, and various newspapers carried an account of her tribulations.

Capitalizing on her tragedy, she started lecturing about her experiences, showing her tattoos. Rumor was that she had two children with a Mohave brave, but that controversy was left unresolved. Eventually, a Methodist minister named Royal Stratton who had a flair for writing, published a lurid account (only in part factual) and the book--titled The Captivity of the Oatman Girls--became a best-seller. With its publication and Olive's extensive lecturing, she became a celebrity, later marrying a wealthy man who also had suffered from Indian depredations. Stratton, who was a great promoter, eventually died insane.

Olive masked her tattoos with makeup and took to wearing a heavy veil. The trauma never left her, though, as she had frequent nightmares and bouts of crying. Headaches almost were a constant. Her brother died at 45 and was buried (ironically enough) at Red Cloud, Neb. She lived for another year and a half and then was laid to rest in Fairfield, Tex. The Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument at her grave site, although it took until 1954 to accomplish this political act. Olive's death did not diminish interest in the story, as new editions of the book kept coming out, the latest being in 1994.

This current attempt by Brian McGinty is as close as one can get to a critical edition. An avid investigator, he writes well and does his best to give an honest, rather than exaggerated, account. He also does justice to the Indians, giving readers insight into their anthropology. Indexed, the work contains 27 pages of bibliography and 20 pages of end notes.

Reviewed by GERALD F. KREYCHE American Thought Editor
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Author:Kreyche, Gerald F.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:662
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