CURTIS: The Oatman Massacre – Part Two: rescued by the Mojave


This is the second in a series about the massacre of the Oatman family in 1851 after leaving Maricopa Wells.

You will recall that two girls in the Oatman family, 13-year-old Olive and 7-year-old Mary Ann, were left alive and taken as slaves to the village of the men who slaughtered their family. For a nightmarish year, the two girls suffered mistreatment and deprivation at the hands of their captors.

We will relive the next chapter in the Oatman girls’ history from Olive’s perspective.
You are Olive Oatman. You are now 14 years old. You have been a slave in the village of your captors for a year, suffering abuse, overwork and hunger, still carrying fresh in your mind the horror of the slaughter of your parents and siblings, which you and your little sister, Mary Ann, now 8 years old, were forced to witness.

Each new day brings the prospect of more labor as you and Mary Ann are forced to perform the most arduous tasks. You pray constantly for rescue from this nightmare existence, but white men never visit this remote village and as the days, weeks and months pass, your hope fades.

One day, a group of people belonging to the Mojave (Mohave) tribe visits the village where you and Mary Ann are being held. The Mojave tribal leader, Espaniola, and his wife are among the group. Espaniola’s wife, Aespano, asks her husband to buy you and your sister from your captors. Initially he is told you are not for sale, but, at his wife’s insistence, he increases the offer until a deal is struck. You are traded for some vegetables, a few blankets, miscellaneous trinkets and two horses.

There is no tearful farewell when you and Mary Ann leave the village of the men who butchered your family and enslaved you.

You now have to walk with your new owners to their home, several hundred miles away, on the banks of the Colorado River near what is now Needles, California. Topeka, the daughter of Espaniola and Aespano, shows you kindness — something you have grown unaccustomed to. She gives you blankets to sleep on and makes some leather soles to protect your feet.

Rather than abusing and enslaving you, the Mojaves celebrate your arrival and give you a small lodge to live in. The family adopts you and Mary Ann. Espaniola tells the people, “Let everyone help raise them. If they are sick, tend to them. Treat them well.”

The tribe prospers and you are given a plot of land to farm and accepted as members of the tribe. They give you the name “Aliutman,” a derivation of your real surname, and they tattoo your lower face with the blue markings of their tribe.

You and Mary Ann become very close to your adoptive parents and sister, and you master the Mojave language quickly. Your new life is a striking contrast to the life of slavery and abuse endured for the past year. You have plenty of food, you play games and swim in the Colorado River. Even though you work your little plot of land, you enjoy hours of rest and freedom every day.

But despite the pleasantness of a new life, Mary Ann is unable to release the trauma of her family’s slaughter. She cannot stop grieving. She is frequently ill and often too weak to work. Her poor health is a constant concern to you.

In 1855, four years after the massacre, there is a season of drought. Crops fail and many of the Mojave tribe die of starvation. It is a time of great suffering. You are now 18 and Mary Ann is 11. You have clung to each other and formed a bond of love and mutual dependence that few people could ever understand.

Olive Oatman, left, mourns the death of her sister Mary Ann in this 1857 illustration.

Mary Ann’s health worsens, and despite all you and Aespano do to try to save her, she dies of starvation. Before dying, she tells you she knows that caring for her has been a great burden to you and she believes you will be better off after her death. Your grief over her loss can only be imagined. Kind-hearted Aespano is nearly inconsolable.

It is the Mojave custom to cremate their dead, but you are allowed to lay your little sister to rest after the manner of your own people. You bury her in the little garden you have tended together.

The famine becomes more severe. More people die. You are suffering from advanced malnutrition and with the loss of Mary Ann, you long for death. Aespano is determined she will not lose you like your sister. In an act of unselfish love that probably saves your life, she unearths a stash of cornmeal she has been hoarding and gives it to you. Your strength returns and soon you are able to resume working in your garden.

But, once again, your life is about to change. A man named Francisco, who is a member of another tribe, tells the post commander at Fort Yuma that he knows your whereabouts. The commander accepts his offer to act as a representative of the U.S. government and negotiate for your return to White society.

At first Espaniola resists, but in days of talks Francisco makes threats of retaliation by the army. Espaniola, who had heard stories of how troops from Fort Yuma attacked a neighboring tribe, killing the men and burning the village, fears for his people and is forced to accede.

You, Olive Oatman, have accepted your new life. You have become part of a family — part of a tribe. You have nearly forgotten how to speak English, and now, when you learn that once again your future has been decided by others, you burst into tears.

To be continued in the December edition of InMaricopa magazine.

C.M. Curtis, American Western author and historian, is the best-selling author of 11 books, including eight westerns. His books can be found on and

This story was first published in the November edition of InMaricopa magazine.