The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival

The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival

by Brian McGinty


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Arizona-based McGinty is an independent scholar and writer specializing in American history and law. He examines the "Oatman Massacre" of 1851, in which all but three members of a Mormon pioneer family were attacked and killed by a band of southwestern Native Americans near the Gila River. Two daughters, Olive and Mary Ann, were taken captive and a son, Lorenzo, left for dead; Mary Ann died from illness during her captivity. Employing information from diaries, letters, and other firsthand accounts, and recent studies of 19th-century southwestern Native Americans, McGinty offers an updated account of the event, Olive and Mary Ann's lives among their captors, Olive's rescue and reunion with Lorenzo, and her eight years of touring and talking about her ordeal. Annotation ©2005 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806137704
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/01/2006
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,186,794
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Brian McGinty is an attorney and historian who specializes in American history, wine, and law. He is the author of nine books, including Strong Wine: The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy.

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The Oatman Massacre

A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival

By Brian McGinty


Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8315-2


The Family

The story of the Oatmans begins far from the southwestern desert—nearly a continent away, in the southwestern corner of Vermont, in a wooded valley where white settlers had, late in the eighteenth century, begun to clear timber and put up fences on land wrested from the Western Abenakis, a fishing and hunting people of the northeastern woods. There were a good number of Oatmans in Vermont's Rutland County when Roys Oatman was born in the first decade of the nineteenth century—enough to give his mother and father a sense that their home, though far from the population centers of New England, was secure and that their newborn would grow to manhood unmolested by "marauding Indians."

The Oatmans were descended from Dutch emigrants who had arrived in New York from Holland at the end of the seventeenth century. Their first American ancestor was a gold- and silversmith named Johannes Outman [sic] who with his wife, Femmetje Koch, worshipped in New York's Dutch Reformed Church. In the early eighteenth century, Johannes Outman's descendants began to migrate into neighboring colonies, first Connecticut, then, sometime after 1749, Vermont. The first Outman to make his home in Vermont was Johannes's grandson George, who settled in the town of Arlington about 1760. George and his son George Jr. (who Americanized the spelling of the family name to "Oatman") both fought in the American Revolution on the side of the colonists. After the war, the son moved to the Rutland County village of Middletown, where he cleared a plot of forest that became known as the Oatman Farm. George Jr.'s son Lyman married Lucy Hartland of Middletown on November 27, 1801, then set about raising a large family that eventually included twelve boys and five girls. Roys, the fourth child and the third son of Lyman and Lucy Hartland Oatman, was born on or near the Oatman Farm on an unrecorded date in 1809.

The Oatmans had apparently abandoned the Dutch Reformed Church of their ancestors sometime before they moved to Vermont, for George Sr. was a practicing Anglican by 1747. But the communion of the English kings and queens proved no more durable an association for the Oatmans than the Dutch faith, and sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, they were caught up in a new religious fervor that swept over the hills and valleys of Vermont. This was the "rule and method" developed in England by the brothers John and Charles Wesley and planted in the United States when the first "Methodist" bishop in North America was installed at Baltimore in 1784. The first Methodist minister appeared in Middletown in 1801, and though a permanent Methodist church was not built for many years (the town's two oldest churches were the Congregational and the Baptist), there was a flurry of Methodist activity early in the new century—study classes, sermons given by itinerant ministers, and camp meetings. Much of the local enthusiasm for Methodism was inspired by a compelling if eccentric preacher named Lorenzo Dow, who traveled widely along the Atlantic seaboard. Dow spoke outdoors, sometimes for as long as three hours at a time and always held his audiences rapt. He often closed his perorations with a parting promise: "One year from this day, at 2:00 P.M., I will preach here again." The people laughed at his audacity in setting an appointment so far in advance and dismissed him as "Crazy Dow"; but a year later to the day, who should appear in town at the appointed hour but Lorenzo Dow? As the expected crowd gathered round him, the preacher shouted with evident pleasure, "Crazy Dow is with you once again."

Roys Oatman's grandfather George Jr. converted to Methodism, and Roys's uncle Eli Oatman was one of the founders of the Methodist Episcopal Society in Middletown. Roys was also a Methodist, and when his oldest son was born in 1836, he named him Lorenzo Dow Oatman, in honor of the itinerant minister who had preached in Middletown during his youth.

Though the mountains and valleys of Vermont were often breathtakingly beautiful, much of the soil was far from fertile. To farm previously untilled land, Vermonters had to clear it of its dense tree cover and haul away the rocks that choked the ground. Settlers also found that the weather in Vermont could be harsh. The summer of 1816, when Roys Oatman was seven, was particularly cold, with snow in June and a hard frost in July that wiped out crops across the state (for years after, Vermonters called this year "eighteen hundred and froze to death"). The Oatman family left Vermont not long after this disaster to settle on a new farm near the town of Locke in western New York.

Locke was eight miles south of Lake Owasco, one of the long, narrow Finger Lakes of western New York. The family that Lyman and Lucy Hartland Oatman brought to Locke was large, though, judged by the standards of the time, not extraordinarily so. When the United States census taker visited their home in Locke in 1820, he found ten Oatmans in residence, eight of whom were minor children and two who were adults.

Roys Oatman probably did not stand out from his siblings in this ample brood. Like his brothers, he worked on his father's farm, rising early in the morning, retiring early at night, perhaps stealing a few hours at the end of the day to read a book by candlelight. He attended school, at least for a while, and acquired a fairly good education. During the spring and summer, he spent most of the daylight hours working in the fields, following the directions of his older brothers and father. It is unlikely, however, that he did this with much joy. Years later, his children remembered him as a cheerful man with an optimistic outlook on life. But men and women who traveled with him on the western trail knew he could be difficult: he did not like to follow orders; he had an obstinate turn of mind; and once he had set his mind on a course of action, it seemed that he would rather suffer some calamity than back down.

Life in Locke was not much different from that in any small northeastern town during Roys Oatman's boyhood. If the routine of farmwork was dull, it was enlivened by an exciting, at times even frightening, religious life. In western New York, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians vigorously contended for members. On Sundays preachers lectured their congregations about the virtues of Bible study, and on hot summer evenings they retreated to tents at the edges of the towns and urged their audiences to repentance. Revivals swept across western New York with such regularity that the region came to be called the "Burned-Over District," a place where the fires of faith and devotion burned hot and repeatedly. The evangelical fervor of western New York was reflected in other parts of the United States, as traveling preachers exhorted the population to piety, laying the foundations for new denominations (among them the "Millerites," later renamed the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the "Campbellites," or Disciples of Christ) and raising existing sects to new prominence (Methodism exploded from just over a thousand members in 1773 to one million in 1844, making it the largest denomination in the United States). Religious feeling reached a pitch not seen since the "Great Awakening" of the 1730s and 1740s, prompting historians to describe the period as America's "Second Great Awakening."

The Oatmans were not immune to the religious ferment of the time. If they were already committed to Methodism, the tent revivals of the itinerant Methodist ministers no doubt stimulated their faith, while meetings conducted by other preachers hinted at the wider world outside the revival tents.

The Oatmans remained in Locke for a dozen or more years. Although western New York must have seemed a vast improvement over the rocky hills and valleys of Vermont, it was hardly an earthly paradise. The completion in 1825 of the Erie Canal (which crossed the Finger Lakes region just thirty miles north of Locke) gave western New Yorkers hope of new prosperity, but when towns and cities along the canal did not grow as rapidly as expected, settlers began to talk of moving farther west. A steady stream of settlers left New York in the 1820s and 1830s for the Ohio River Valley. The Oatmans joined this throng, leaving Locke probably in the early 1830s. They may have lived for a short time in Ohio but soon moved across Ohio and Indiana to Illinois.

They found a tract of land in the western part of Illinois, on a prairie between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. There, in the town of Franklin—later renamed La Harpe, after an early French trapper—in Hancock County, about fifteen miles from the Mississippi and twenty-five miles northeast of Keokuk, Iowa, Lyman and Lucy Oatman built a one-and-a-half-story log cabin and fitted it up as a public inn. The business prospered, and by 1836 they were able to buy two lots across the road and put up a larger building that they called the Tremont Hotel.

It is not clear whether Roys was with his parents when they first arrived in Illinois or he came on a little later. He was by this time an adult, capable of choosing his own home and the woman he wanted to share it with. In 1832, the year he turned twenty-three, he married Mary Ann Sperry, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Joy and Mary Ann Lamont Sperry of Trumbull County, Ohio. The marriage took place in the Sperry's home in Mecca, Ohio.

Like the Oatmans, the Sperrys had pursued a steady westward course in the early years of the nineteenth century. Mary Ann's mother was born in New York and her father in Massachusetts, but they had all moved into northeastern Ohio sometime before 1820. Roys Oatman did not cut a very impressive figure: though no pictures have survived, his children recalled that he was not much above five feet tall and had a round face and black hair. But the Sperrys were probably satisfied with the match, for in the same year that Roys and Mary Ann were married, Roys's sisters Florella and Lorania both married Sperry boys. Bound by three marriages, the Oatman and Sperry families would follow closely parallel paths in the years that followed.

If Roys had not moved to Illinois before his marriage, he arrived soon thereafter, settling in the same Hancock County township as his parents. He bought land on the prairie and set about farming it but, after a couple of years, opened a store in La Harpe. Mary Ann presented him with children almost with the regularity of prairie corn crops. A daughter, Lucy, was born in August 1834, and a son named Lorenzo Dow in July 1836. A second daughter, Olive Ann, was born on September 7, 1837. Mary Ann, named for her mother, followed in 1843, Roys Jr. in 1846, Charity Ann in 1848, and Roland in 1849. Before they left Illinois, Roys and Mary Ann Oatman were the parents of seven children.

Meanwhile the prairies of western Illinois were filling with settlers. Wagons heavy with grain raised clouds of dust as they rolled along country roads cut through fields of corn and wheat. Steamboats from the delta country of Louisiana docked along the shore of the Mississippi to discharge traders, speculators, and freight and receive cargos of grain. In Hancock County, as elsewhere in western Illinois, towns were growing rapidly. Joy and Mary Ann Sperry, Mary Ann Oatman's parents, moved from Ohio in 1836, settling on a farm in Adams County, just south of Hancock. Within the year, however, they moved on to La Harpe, where Joy built a house and took up a small farm. While his unmarried sons, William, Aaron, Charles, and Harrison, helped with the farmwork, Joy worked in and around La Harpe as a carpenter and millwright.

* * *

The character of western Illinois changed dramatically in April 1839, when a charismatic former Vermonter named Joseph Smith, Jr., settled at the western edge of Hancock County, about thirty miles from La Harpe. Smith was well-known to the Oatmans and Sperrys before he came to Illinois, for he had achieved an astonishing celebrity (some called it notoriety) as the self-proclaimed prophet of a religious sect officially designated the "Latter-day Saints" (or "Saints of the Latter Days") but informally known to most Americans as Mormons.

Like Roys Oatman, Smith was a native of Vermont (he was born in 1805 in Sharon, about forty miles northeast of Oatman's birthplace in Middletown). Like the Oatmans, the Smiths were farmers who had struggled year after year to extract a living, first from Vermont's rocky soil and then, after 1816, from land near Palmyra in western New York, less than fifty miles from the Oatman farm at Locke. From western New York the Smiths had moved farther west, to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to western Illinois. But beyond those superficial resemblances, the story of Joseph Smith's life could hardly have been more different than Roys Oatman's—or that of almost any other young American of his generation.

From an early age, Smith evinced an extraordinary gift for spiritual (some might say magical) insights. He used "seer stones" (polished rocks with some of the same properties as crystal balls) to see "ghosts, infernal spirits, [and] mountains of gold and silver" buried in the ground. When only twenty-five years old, he published his celebrated Book of Mormon, a "volume of holy scripture" that he had "translated" from golden plates he found buried in the side of a hill near his father's farm. The Book of Mormon purported to be a history of ancient peoples who fled Jerusalem about 600 B.C. and later settled in North America, where Jesus visited them after his resurrection. Two of these peoples, the Nephites ("a white and delightsome people") and the Lamanites ("a dark, a filthy and a loathsome people"), engaged in a long series of wars concluding in the Lamanites' defeat of the Nephites. Smith was secretive about his golden plates, concealing them in a locked box so skeptics could not examine them, hanging a curtain across the room in which he worked at his translation so no one could see the process by which he transformed the "reformed Egyptian" characters on the plates into something that resembled the English style of the King James Bible. His New York neighbors were first amused, then puzzled, and finally outraged by the Book of Mormon. While some were willing to dismiss it as a piece of harmless fiction, others branded it an "impudent fraud" and "blasphemy."

The scorn heaped on the Book of Mormon did not seem to bother Smith's own family, who embraced it as "the word of God," or the family members and friends who, in April 1830, helped him found his "Church of Christ"—later renamed the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"—at Fayette, New York, about twenty-five miles from the Oatman farm at Locke. Now calling himself a "Seer, a Translator, a Prophet, an Apostle of Jesus Christ," Smith took the headquarters of his church to Kirtland, Ohio, about thirty miles east of Cleveland, where he and his followers built a handsome stone temple. At the same time, however, he sent a colony of the faithful to western Missouri, where, according to one of the many revelations he received directly from the Almighty, they were to build their "New Jerusalem" or "City of Zion"—the "place of gathering" that would be the center of the "kingdom of God on earth."

But Smith's "Saints"—or as other Americans now habitually referred to them, Mormons—aroused opposition wherever they went. In Ohio in 1838 Smith and several of his followers were tarred and feathered and then run out of the state. In Missouri differences between Mormons and "gentiles" (as Smith called all those who did not accept his leadership) led to angry arguments, battles, and finally a "war" that did not end until the Prophet and about five thousand of his followers fled into Illinois in April 1839.

Most Illinoisans welcomed the Mormons to their midst, believing that they had been treated shamefully in Missouri. Still determined to build a "New Jerusalem" on the western frontier, Smith acquired a tract of land on the Mississippi about thirty miles west of La Harpe, named it Nauvoo, and began to transform it into another "City of Zion." As the foundations of an imposing temple were dedicated, Mormons from all over the country began to "gather" to the place. When the population topped eleven thousand, with a third more in the outlying areas of Hancock County, Smith's followers boasted that their "New Jerusalem" in Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois.

No one now knows precisely when or under what circumstances Roys Oatman and his family became Mormons. Years later Mary Ann Oatman's brother Charles Sperry recalled that their father, Joy, joined the church in the summer of 1839, shortly after Joseph Smith's arrival in Hancock County and that "part of the family" followed him at about the same time. The Oatmans, however, may not have joined the Latter-day Saints until about a year and a half later, when Mormon elder Z. H. Gurley spent several weeks in La Harpe proselytizing for "Zion." In March 1841 the church's official newspaper in Nauvoo, the Times and Seasons, reported that, in only six days, Gurley had the "unspeakable privilege" of baptizing fifty-two residents of La Harpe (all by the prescribed Mormon ritual of total immersion) and that there was "a prospect of great accessions to their number." That the Oatmans were attracted to Mormonism is not surprising, given the enthusiasm with which they had embraced Methodism when it was new (Joseph Smith himself had once attended Methodist camp meetings). After a branch of Smith's church was organized in La Harpe, the town quickly took on the character of a Mormon village. There was almost constant contact between La Harpe and Nauvoo, and inhabitants eagerly read Mormon tracts and newspapers.


Excerpted from The Oatman Massacre by Brian McGinty. Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Family,
2. The Vision,
3. The Quest,
4. The Captives,
5. The Tattoos,
6. The Return,
7. The Book,
8. The Legacy,

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The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
mysteries281 More than 1 year ago
This should be required reading in High Schools - definetly real American history, and very interesting - never boring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Olive Oatman was a tortured soul. From what we now know about the trauma and ptsd suffered by children kidnapped and held captive for years, I don't believe for one minute they preferred their captors world, but merely did what was needed to survive. Sure, she made a few friends, but she was a captive slave. It's time for readers of this type of history to start to acknowledge this and treat the captives, especially the young girls, not the indians, as the victims they were. Her behavior to me pointed more towards the shame and guilt as a victim, not a willing participant in her captivity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago