The History of Oatman Arizona and Its Free-Roaming Burros

Updated on March 5, 2020
Chuck profile image

Chuck enjoys traveling and over the years has had the opportunity to visit many places in the U.S. and the world.

A couple of burros checking out the back seat while my wife and daughter take pictures.
A couple of burros checking out the back seat while my wife and daughter take pictures. | Source

An Old Mining Town That Survived

Nestled along a section of the old Route 66 in the Black Mountains of northwestern Arizona is the little village of Oatman.

In 1863, a prospector in the area named Johnny Moss discovered gold where Oatman now stands. Moss filed a number of claims, one of which he named Moss and another which he named Oatman in honor of Olive Oatman.

Olive Oatman was well known and famous in that era and the location of the Oatman Massacre was one of the few nearby places in the then mostly empty surrounding desert.

The town of Oatman began sometime after Moss filed his claims. Oatman was not the first name of what is now the town of Oatman; with its early booms and busts, it ended up with a number of new names as a result of its population declining to near zero during the busts and then re-emerging shortly after following a new boom.

At some point in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, it was named Oatman and that name stuck. However, it doesn’t appear that Olivia Oatman ever visited or had anything to do with Oatman, Arizona, other than the fact that the site of the massacre of her family and the start of her five-year captivity occurred in the surrounding desert.

Driving into Oatman on Historic Route 66
Driving into Oatman on Historic Route 66 | Source

Oatman Struggled to Avoid Becoming Another Ghost Town

Like Tombstone, Arizona, Oatman is an old mining town whose mines have been closed since the start of World War II and whose remote location has rendered it economically obsolete.

In the case of Tombstone, a change in a planned railroad route killed off chances of attracting new residents and employers. However, in Oatman’s case, it was located along the famous U.S. Route 66 that ran between Chicago and Los Angeles. But, starting in the 1950s as motor travel began increasing, new roads, like Interstate 40, replaced much of Route 66 and other former major roads.

Unlike many other dying mining towns, Oatman residents saw their town not as a dying relic of the past but as a place for people to immerse themselves in a past that previously existed only in history books.

A couple of burros chatting with my wife on Main Street in Oatman, AZ.
A couple of burros chatting with my wife on Main Street in Oatman, AZ. | Source

Over Half a Million People Visit Oatman Every Year

Oatman is a town which, according to the 2010 Census, has a population of 128, sits in the middle of nowhere and is accessible solely via a section of the old Route 66. Despite these handicaps, half a million tourists visit and spend money in Oatman every year.

The town is visibly old, with most of its aging and weatherbeaten old buildings still in use as stores, restaurants and other tourist-centered businesses. Some of the sidewalks are still made of wood.

One of its major buildings is the Oatman Hotel, Restaurant & Bar—a two-story adobe structure built in 1902 that survived the 1921 fire that destroyed many of the town's smaller wooden buildings. The hotel portion of the building is now a museum, with one of its major exhibits being the room where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon following their 1939 wedding in nearby Kingston, Arizona. The restaurant and bar portion of the building still serve food and drink.

Our visit to Oatman occurred this past Thanksgiving, which meant that the town was mostly empty that day. Two or three other people came by while we were there. Only a couple of stores were open, one being an antique shop with early to mid-twentieth century everyday items. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fascinating to walk through and see things our great-grandparents used.

Washing machines like this one our grandmothers used to use.  It was better than washing by hand, but it had to be filled manually then drained and refilled to rinse, then run through ringer on top to wring out before hanging wash outside to dry.
Washing machines like this one our grandmothers used to use. It was better than washing by hand, but it had to be filled manually then drained and refilled to rinse, then run through ringer on top to wring out before hanging wash outside to dry. | Source

Wild Burros Outnumber Humans and Attract Tourists

The area in Northwestern Arizona where Oatman and the surrounding Black Mountains are located is a rugged, high desert, mountain environment with few people and few roads. In 1863, a prospector and mountain man named Johnny Moss discovered gold in the area and filed claims on places where he found gold. Moss's discovery and filing of claims attracted other prospectors, which led to the creation of a mining camp where Oatman now stands.

Prospectors were mainly loners who spent their lives wandering alone through the mountains accompanied by a burro carrying the prospector’s food, supplies and tools. They spent weeks or months alone with their burro as their only companion. The burro loyally accompanied through the wilderness as they searched for gold.

Without their sure-footed burros to carry their tools and supplies prospectors would have been unable to survive while searching for gold in the vast, rugged area.

The harsh conditions, injury, illness and old age resulted in a number of prospectors dying alone in the wilderness while searching for gold. Following a prospector’s death, his loyal burro was forced to wander off and live in the wild. After a few decades, the wilderness area around Oatman was home to many wild burros.

Since it was the burros that were the backbone of the early mining in the area that led to the establishment of Oatman as a town, the townspeople have responded by allowing the burros to roam and relieve themselves freely in the streets (locals and visitors have to watch where they step). The burros, like wild horses, are protected by Federal Law.

Burros posing for pictures while hoping to get paid with treats.  While easy-going, the burros are wild animals who will fight if they feel threatened.
Burros posing for pictures while hoping to get paid with treats. While easy-going, the burros are wild animals who will fight if they feel threatened. | Source

Oatman Named After Olive Oatman

As mentioned above, Oatman is named after Olive Oatman. At the age of 14, she was traveling across the western Arizona desert with her parents and siblings when an encounter with a band of local Indians resulted in the death of her parents and most of her siblings. Olive and her 7-year-old sister were taken captive. Following her release from captivity some 5 years later, she and her story became very famous.

Olive was born in Illinois on September 7, 1837. She was one of seven children born to Roys (or Royce—the spelling varies depending on the source) and Mary Ann Oatman. She and her family were members of a group, known as Brewsterites, that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church) and led by a man named James C. Brewster. Among other disagreements with the Mormon Church leaders in Salt Lake City, Brewster believed that California, not Utah, was where the members of the Church should settle and have their headquarters.

On August 5, 1850, a group of families led by James Brewster left Independence, Missouri, for California. Tensions arose among the group (numbering just under 100 people) as more and more people began opposing Brewster’s leadership.

As they neared Santa Fe, many, including Roys Oatman, became so upset with Brewster that the wagon train split, with some following Brewster along a northern route and many others, including the Oatmans, choosing the southern route (known among other names as the Southern Emigrant Trail). The latter led across the deserts of southern Arizona and California. Roys Oatman ended up becoming the leader of the group.

Picture of Olive Oatman above the "Olive Oatman Restaurant & Ice Cream Saloon"
Picture of Olive Oatman above the "Olive Oatman Restaurant & Ice Cream Saloon" | Source

Royce Oatman Continues to California While Rest of Wagon Train Stays Behind

Upon reaching a desert oasis northwest of Tucson, Arizona, in February 1851, the families in the wagon train were warned that the route ahead was dangerous. In addition to the fact that the route traveled across a barren desert, they were also warned about hostile activity by some of the tribes residing and operating in the desert.

While the miles of desert ahead were harsh and barren, winter was a better time to cross due to lower temperatures and greater possibility of finding water from the winter rains. However, the threat of hostile attack offset the advantages of traveling this route in winter.

When the other families in the wagon train decided to remain in Arizona, Royce Oatman and his family chose to continue on to California alone. Why Royce decided to continue on with his family alone is somewhat of a mystery. Despite his break with James Brewster, there is no evidence that he gave up on the Brewsterite belief that promised site for Mormon settlement was in California rather than Utah. Some sources also state that Royce Oatman hoped to find gold in California, which makes sense as this period was the middle of the famous 1848–1855 gold rush.

WikiPedia Photo of Olive Oatman from about 1863 about 7 years after her release from captivity.  Note the blue tattoo on her chin—a symbol of her being a member of the Mojave tribe.
WikiPedia Photo of Olive Oatman from about 1863 about 7 years after her release from captivity. Note the blue tattoo on her chin—a symbol of her being a member of the Mojave tribe. | Source

An Encounter Gone Bad

Whatever Royce and his family’s reasons were, they ended up being massacred by a band of natives four days after leaving the Maricopa Wells Oasis. Interestingly, every account of the massacre starts by describing what happened as an encounter rather than an attack. All of the accounts that I have reviewed describe the encounter as a group of native men on horseback approaching the wagon and asking for tobacco, food and guns.

With a long trip across the desert ahead Royce was naturally concerned about giving away his supplies of food and was certainly unwilling to hand over the family’s guns. His refusal to hand over food and guns resulted in the native group turning hostile. A short fight ensued that resulted in both parents and four of the children being killed. When the murderous melee ended, only 14-year-old Olive and 7-year-old Mary Ann remained alive and physically unharmed. Fifteen-year-old Lorenzo also survived but had been beaten unconscious and assumed dead by the two girls and the attackers. Lorenzo regained consciousness sometime after and managed to make his way to a settlement vowing to find his sisters after he recovered.

Following the massacre of the family, Olive and Mary Ann were taken by their captors, who Olive later identified as Tonto Apaches (however, most scholars claim that her captors were Tolkepayas more commonly known as Western Yavapias), back to the tribe as slaves. While with the Tolkepayas Olive and Mary Ann were forced to go out and forage for food, carry wood and other menial tasks ordered by their masters. Both were beaten when they displeased tribal members.

Larger view of Olive Oatman Restaurant & Ice Cream Saloon
Larger view of Olive Oatman Restaurant & Ice Cream Saloon | Source

Mojave Chief Espaniole Buys Olive and Mary Ann and Adopts Them

During a trading visit by a group from the neighboring Mojave Tribe, the two girls were noticed by Topeka, the Mojave Chief Espaniole’s daughter, who, seeing how the girls were being mistreated took pity on them and urged her father to buy them. The Tolkepayas initially refused, but at a later meeting did agree to sell the two girls to the Mojave chief, who made them a part of his family.

Both Olive and probably her sister were tattooed according to Mojave custom. After her return to her own people, many cited her tattoos as evidence that Olive had been branded as a slave by the Mojaves. However, tattooing was a common practice among the Mojaves, who believed that the tattoos identified them as members of the tribe and were needed to gain admittance to heaven after death. They didn’t tattoo slaves because slaves were outsiders and the Mojave were not concerned about what happened to the slaves after death.

During Olive’s and Mary Ann’s stay with the Mojaves, the tribe endured one of the area’s periodic famines. Olive survived, but Mary Ann and a number of other members of the tribe perished before the famine ended.

Olive survived the famine and appears to have assimilated into the tribe and its culture. She also appears to have found happiness in being a part of the tribe. She not only took a Mojave name, Oach, but also avoided being seen by railroad workers who were camped nearby and other occasional visitors from the outside world. This may have been partly due to the fact that she didn’t know that her brother, Lorenzo, had not only survived but was looking for her. There were also rumors, which were not only never substantiated as well as repeatedly denied by Olive, that she had been married to a member of the tribe and had given birth to children with him.

Despite Olive’s and the tribe’s efforts to keep her hidden from American authorities, rumors did begin to circulate about a white girl living among the Mojave. At the age of 19 and some 4 years after surviving the attack that killed most of her family the authorities at Ft. Yuma in Arizona had enough evidence to demand and get the return of Olive to American authorities.

On February 22, 1856, the commander at Fort Yuma dispatched Francisco, a member of the Yuma tribe working for the Army as scout, to the Mojave lands to bring Olive to Fort Yuma. She probably arrived at Ft. Yuma a couple of months later, as the trip took about 20 days each way.

Oatman Hotel built in 1902 and is where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon following their 1939 wedding in nearby Kingston, Arizona.
Oatman Hotel built in 1902 and is where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon following their 1939 wedding in nearby Kingston, Arizona. | Source

Olive Oatman’s Experience Not That Unusual

An attack by natives on a lone family crossing the Arizona desert in the 1850s was not particularly unusual. While sad and painful for the victim’s family and friends, it was too common an occurrence to be newsworthy.

The same is true of children and sometimes women or occasionally men who survived an attack by Indians and were taken and adopted into the tribe. Children orphaned in attacks were especially likely to be taken and raised by the attackers. Compassion was a major factor, since even hardened fighters can be reluctant to kill an innocent child, and walking away leaving them alone in a remote area more than likely means death for them. There were often less noble reasons, such as using the child to replace a child lost to death or warrior and wife were unable to have or, like the original captors of Olive and Mary Ann, taking them as slaves.

The adoption of children orphaned following a battle was practiced by whites as well, especially military officers, and for the same reasons cited above. In many cases, human sympathy for an innocent child was the main motivation. The most famous instance of this occurred following General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the Creek tribe in the fierce Battle of Tallushatchee during the War of 1812.

When the surviving women of the village refused to take and raise a boy named Lyncoya, whose parents had been killed in the battle, Jackson had the boy sent back to his home with instructions to his wife Rachael to take Lyncoa into their home and raise him. Jackson then proceeded south toward New Orleans where he had his famous victory over the British.

Of course, there were others, like their native counterparts, who took in a child whose parents had been killed in the battle to replace a child they had lost or who were unable to have children of their own. There were also those who saw the child as the opportunity for free domestic help.

Olive Oatman Becomes Famous

Olive Oatman’s experience was not that uncommon and, other than a report or entry or two in a log book at the remote Fort Yuma, she might have been forgotten to history except for a few differences between her and other instances of orphaned children being adopted by the attacking natives.

Unlike many who spent their lives in their adopted culture, she returned and re-entered American life as she was entering adulthood. This was also a time when the building of railroads and stringing of telegraph lines kept reducing travel times for people and information. While both the first transcontinental telegraph line and railroad that connected the east and west coasts directly were not completed until 1861 and 1869 respectively, railroad track and telegraph lines were rapidly connecting cities all over the nation. Finally, literacy rates were increasing every year, which resulted in increasing demand for newspapers, magazines and books. As a result, Olive’s return was widely reported in the press.

Following her return, Olive was quickly reunited with her brother, Lorenzo, who had not given up looking for her and Mary Ann. She and Lorenzo went to California and were then taken to live with relatives in Oregon. Their Uncle appears to have had a tavern in a mining town in Oregon and used her tale to attract business.

Olive’s assimilation into Mojave culture appears to have been so thorough that she forgot her native language (English) and culture. However, with some help and schooling, she quickly regained her English and re-assimilated into American society.

Olive and Lorenzo Meet Reverend Royal B. Stanton and Go on the Lecture Circuit

In 1857, Lorenzo and Olive met the Reverend Royal B. Stanton, a Methodist Minister who was living in Yreka, California, at that time. Stanton was born in 1827 in Potsdam, NY, and appears to have originally been a Congregational Minister in New York. He moved to California around 1846, where he spent 11 years lecturing in California before meeting (or being approached by Lorenzo Oatman) with Lorenzo and Olive to help them write a book about the massacre of the Oatman family, Lorenzo’s search for Olive and Mary Ann, and Olive’s life as a captive. Royal Stanton is listed as the author of the book Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life Among the Apache and Mohave Indians, which made Olive Oatman famous.

According to Stanton royalties from the book (which was very popular and went through at least 3 printings) went to Lorenzo and Olive. Olive, and probably Lorenzo, traveled around the nation on the lecture circuit speaking about her experience and promoting the book.

Olive Sometimes Had to Change Her Story to Give the Public What They Wanted to Hear

There are inconsistencies between accounts of her experiences given by Olive to some people close to her and what she described in the book and in her lectures.

First of all the book was written by Stanton based upon his interviews with Lorenzo and Olive. The experience of Lorenzo, who was 15, a year older than Olive, at the time of the attack and would have been 20 or 21 when Olive was returned, was different from that of Olive in that he was nearly killed in the massacre of his family.

He then spent the rest of his teens looking for his two sisters. So his opinion of both the attacking tribe and the Mojave was probably more negative than that of Olive, who not only assimilated into the Mojave tribe but also seems to have been treated well by them. Stanton also probably shared the opinion of most Americans at the time that Indians, in general, were savages that needed civilizing.

Stanton, who was an ordained Christian minister also appears to have held the then-common belief that Mormons were not Christian and, according to many accounts, played down or omitted Olive’s Mormon faith.

The book and lectures were Lorenzo and Olive’s livelihood as well as the source of their college funds (both were enrolled in the University of the Pacific a Methodist-affiliated college in California). Newspapers and Stanton’s book played up the massacre of her family as well as her enslavement and cruel treatment at the hands of her original captors.

The tattoo on her chin fascinated many people (she is still considered the first American woman known to have a tattoo). While she told people that the tattoo on her chin was a religious symbol she is also reported to have claimed on occasion that she had a second tattoo on her back (which was hidden under her clothing) identifying her as a slave.

Overall, Olive appears to have given the public what they wanted to hear while privately recounting the good treatment she had received by the Mojaves.

Olive Leaves Stanton and the Lecture Circuit

In late 1865, while on the speaking circuit, Olive met and soon married a cattleman named John B. Fairchild. Following her marriage, she left the lecture circuit and moved to Sherman Texas with her husband.

After her marriage, she cut her ties with Stanton and moved to Sherman, Texas, with her husband. With her marriage to Fairchild, a successful cattle and businessman she probably no longer needed the income from her speaking and book sales. This would have freed her from promoting her story in a way that compromised the truth in order to give the story that the public wanted.

In Sherman, Olive volunteered at a local orphanage as well as being involved in other charity work. While John and Olive Fairchild didn’t have any children of their own, they did adopt and raise a little girl.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903. She was 65 years old.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Chuck Nugent

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      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Peggy - thanks for your comments. While the official resident population is small Oatman is not that far from Laughlin, Nevada and other population sites making it easy for its enthusiastic supporters to be active members of the community without actually living there. They are very active sponsoring frequent events in town and maintaining it as a sort of living history museum, We were there on a somewhat rainy Thanksgiving Day and while we were there at least a half a dozen other cars came with people visiting. While we were stopped on our way out to take more pictures (including the ones with the burros sticking their heads into the back seat) a couple more cars stopped and then a tour bus full of Chinese tourists. So even on a day when nothing is going on in town and only a couple of stores open Oatman still attracts tourists.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Linda - thanks for your comments. The burros are great fun to watch and take pictures of. They are one of Oatman's biggest attractions. However, even though the burros are used to humans and willing to come very close they are wild animals so people have to common sense and be careful when approaching them. People also have to watch where they step in Oatman as the burros don't care where they relieve themselves

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        5 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        What a fascinating story! I can understand why many people still visit that small town of Oatman, Arizona, even though the resident population is tiny. Discovering interesting places along Route 66 can be fun. Thanks for writing this informative post.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This is a very interesting article. The story of Olive Oatman is intriguing. I'd love to meet the burros that you discovered.

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