Short Stories » The Oatman Captives
The Oatman Captives
ABOUT thirty-five years ago, the residents of San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties were startled by the report that a white woman had been rescued from the Mojave Indians after six years of captivity. This rumor was soon confirmed by the arrival of Miss Olive Oatman, protected by an armed escort of soldiers. She was visited by many persons, and all were interested in her story. It made a deep impression upon my mind, and I will repeat a part of it to you from memory. A company of emigrants set out (from Missouri, I think) for California, but upon the way they became disagreed as to which of two routes was best, so they divided, as Latter-day Saints would not have done. The company in which Mr. Oatman and family traveled also grew discontented, and as they came to small towns one after another stayed behind; but Mr. Oatman was determined to go on alone.
One morning after breakfast, just as they were ready to start, some Apache Indians came to them and demanded food and blankets. Mr. Oatman gave them what he could spare, but they became angry, and in a few moments only Olive and her little sister Mary Ann were to be seen alive. The Indians took what they wished from the wagons, then set them on fire, and, driving the oxen before them, started on foot for the mountains with the girls, Olive, aged twelve, and Mary Ann, eight years old. The younger one soon gave out, her feet becoming so tender from rough walking that at last she was carried upon the back of one Indian, then another, until they arrived in camp, where a great rejoicing was held over the cruel deed. These children were made the drudges of the camp, and were sent out to hunt birds' eggs and grass seeds to eat, also to bring wood and water.
After two years they were sold to the Mojave Indians, among whom their lot was easier, because of kinder treatment. When they had been with this tribe two winters and summers, there came a dry season, and great scarcity prevailed, because the Gila River did not overflow and water their corn and beans. Many Indians died. Little Mary Ann grew weak and then sick, and Olive was permitted to leave work (hunting food) and stay beside her sister. The chiefs wife, to whom they had been given, was very kind-hearted. She had wisely hidden in the ground some corn for future planting, which the others knew nothing about, and from this store she brought forth a little at a time and gave to the captives privately, not even sharing with her own tribe. As Mary Ann grew nearer death, she talked with Olive, and besought her not to feel utterly alone, but to hope and believe she would yet be released and return to the white people. They had often sung together the hymns they had learned at home, and of these the Indians were very fond, and desired to know the meaning of each line. By and by the certainty of soon parting with her only loved one so overcame Olive that she could not sing, but the little sufferer sang on alone. Oh, think of it, little children in Zion, of that dear child in the desert, who had seen parents, brothers and sisters cruelly slain ; who had endured punishment, drudgery, heat, cold and starvation, still remembering the hymns of home, and singing them like a martyr! The last she sang were, " I'm Going Home to Die No More," and " Jesus, Lover of My Soul." The Indians gathered around the death-bed and wept aloud. Mary Ann bade them remember what she and Olive told them of heaven, and bade them good-by. When mid- night came, the songs were hushed, the suffering ended.
It was the custom of the Mojaves to burn their dead, but permission was given Olive to bury her sister, and the Indians helped her to dig the grave and heap rocks upon it.
You may feel sure that Olive was now sadder and lonelier than ever.
One day, long after this, as the sun was sinking from sight, a Yuma Indian named Francisco came into camp with a letter from the commanding officer at Fort Yuma, addressed, " To Olivia, a white woman, said to be a prisoner among the Indians." Of course the red men could not understand it, and the letter was handed to Olive to read aloud. It had been so long since she had seen a book or letter that she could not at first read it, and, telling them so, she asked for time to study it out. Within an hour she was able to do so. It was to the effect that Francisco was authorized to purchase her and bring her to the fort.
The Mojaves formed a circle with Francisco and, Olive standing in the center beside a small fire, and, thus surrounding her, debated through the long hours of the night. Some were for killing messenger and captive, others were anxious for the ransom. Olive knew that any sign of joy on her part would be to her injury, and preserved a stoical appearance. Francisco told her in English that a refusal from the tribe to release her would bring extermination upon them. He told them that they had only this one night to deliberate; by morning he must be gone, and they must decide now.
As daylight came over the hill, they reluctantly named their price: One horse, seven pairs of blankets, and five pounds of beads, to be paid on the arrival of Olive and Francisco at the fort. As the sun appeared, the circle broke and the two stepped forth free, after standing through the long night in council. After a slight breakfast, they set forth, accompanied by the Indians who were to receive the pay, also the chief's daughter-in-law, who seemed to love Olive, for she wept bitterly, as did also some of the children.
At the end of the third day, the sentry at Fort Yuma discovered their approach, and an escort came out to meet them. The flag was flying, the band played, and the cannon boomed. Olive suddenly remembered that she wore only a skirt made of grass, and sank in confusion to the sand. A gallant soldier brought a cloak and threw around her, begging her to rise. Olive was received at the gate of the fort by the commanding officer, General Hentzelman, if I remember rightly, and was conducted to the wife of an officer. Soon clothed in female attire, Olive re- turned to the table awaiting her, where her welcome and her own joy were beyond the feeble powers of language to express.
In a short time after this Olive, attended by a military escort, entered San Bernardino, and next day proceeded to Los Angeles, sixty miles further. There a large crowd awaited her. Her name and story had been passed from lip to lip, and one after another grasped her hand and offered their congratulations upon her escape from that long, sad captivity. One young man hurriedly approached her and asked, "Olive, do you remember your brother Lorenzo?" What a joyous meeting, and how the crowd hurrahed when she answered him with tears of joy! Then he told her that he was left for dead after being thrown over a steep bank, but was awakened to consciousness by the howling of coyotes around him. He crawled up the bank, looked upon the scene of desolation, and then drew himself along the road, back to where he remembered there was water. After drinking and bathing his face, some Pima Indians came that way, found him, and took him home, treating him kindly. After his recovery, he traveled from place to place, believing that ail his kindred were slain, until the glad tidings and the arrival of his lost sister. Kov nobly he would have striven for their release had he only known they were living, and how many brave men would have gone to their rescue!
Olive was tattooed upon her chin, but was a sensible-looking, dignified young woman. Our delegate to the Legislature was the Hon. Jefferson Hunt, a captain in the famous Mormon battalion, and he presented a petition that the State make an appropriation to Olive Oatman, which I think was done.
A minister wrote from Olive's dictation the story of her family's massacre and her own and sister's long captivity, and it was published by her friends.
It was said afterward that Olive married and had a home of comfort and happiness, which Lorenzo shared with her. I have often wished that the grave of little Mary Ann could be found and properly cared for; but God knows where it is, and one day the little martyr will rise rejoicing and meet her own.
The Maricopas and Mojaves told Olive many things that the Latter-day Saints can understand. They knew that their ancestors were once powerful and lived in fine houses, and often pointed to her a certain mountain that none of them would venture near on account of sacred treasures they said were hidden there unti 1 a certain future time.