A Massacre That Shocked the Nation

One of the most heartrending stories attached to the Gila involves the massacre of the family of Royce Oatman, who set out from Independence, Missouri, in 50 with his wife and seven children. A successful farmer driven by some fatal restlessness, Royce set out with his family for California, where the gold rush had triggered yearnings all across the continent. They arrived in Tucson in February 5 , already so exhausted that most of their party decided to winter there. But the Oatmans pushed on alone. They made their way down the Santa Cruz River to the villages of the friendly Pima and Maricopa Indians near Gila bend, still 00 grueling miles from the relative safety of the military garrison at Yuma.

After a prospecting adventurer named Dr. John Lecount told them he had just come from Yuma along the Gila and seen no Apaches, Royce resolved to continue. But he underestimated the difficulty of the route, which reduced their progress to a few miles a day. Their oxen grew so exhausted that the Oatmans often had to carry the contents of the wagon uphill by hand. Dr. Lecount found them in this depleted condition about 00 miles from Yuma. He promised to hurry on to Yuma and send back help. Thus encouraged, they floundered on.

Several days after leaving the Oatmans, Lecount encountered a group of Apache warriors. He kept his weapons at hand, but they stole his horse during the night. He left a note for Royce on a tree and hurried on to Yuma for help.

The Oatmans encountered the same Indians, shortly after making yet another crossing of the capricious, meandering river. The Indians demanded food, which Oatman reluctantly provided. He then urged his family to show courage and go about their business with nonchalance. It proved the wrong tactic. After a brief conference, the Indians fell suddenly on the small family, killing most of them immediately. They spared only the two teenaged daughters, Olive and Mary Ann. They also inadvertently spared their brother, Lorenzo, who was knocked unconscious by a savage blow to the head and left for dead. Fortunately, two Pima Indians found him and rescued him.

The Apaches sold the girls to a band of Mohave Indians for two horses and a blanket. The girls lived as semi-slaves among the Mohaves on the Colorado River for six years, during which time Mary Ann starved to death. Meanwhile, their brother continued to chase rumors of white girls held captive among the Mohave and to offer a reward for their return. Eventually, this prompted a Yuma man to enlist a Mohave Indian’s aid. The Indian bought Olive from the Mohaves and reunited her with Lorenzo. The tragedy made national headlines and became the subject for a lurid, best-selling book, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls, still widely available in Arizona bookstores.