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Oatman, Arizona

Murder on Main Street


By —— Bio and Archives--March 3, 2010

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imageI flinched. The gunshot was much louder than expected and launched a sharp echo careening off the ancient wood buildings that line main street in this craggy old town. I did not know the man who fell dead right before my eyes. Middle-aged, tall and sporting a dirty-white flowing beard, he dropped with a stunned, graceless kerplunk. And then another shot ripped through the quiet, and a second man lay sprawled on the asphalt face down in the dusty, sun-drenched afternoon. An awkward silence fell over the crowd of onlookers. No one called the police, no one interfered with righteous indignation. We just stood there, staring.

And then, slowly, almost as an afterthought, I raised my hands and slapped my palms together as did the large ensemble of appreciative tourists, everybody clapping and cheering and hootin’ and hollerin’ as the disheveled gunslingers picked themselves up off the ground, donned their cowboy hats and took a deep bow for the audience.

Welcome to Oatman, Arizona!

It was gold that first put Oatman and the bleak and rugged Black Mountains on the map, then it was Route 66, and today, donkeys, or burros as they’re called around here. The lucrative gold mining cycle that defined Oatman and its sister town of Gold Road began in 1902 when Ben Taddock spotted the glittery stuff all over the ground. A tent city sprang up, followed by numerous wooden structures, most of them burning to the ground in 1921 which was a common occurrence throughout the American West of old.

imageBy 1930 the town had 20 saloons, ten stores, seven hotels and two banks, all supporting, or existing off of, three major mining operations that flourished from 1903 to 1941. There was even a narrow-gauge railroad that ran to Needles 20 miles south of here in the early days. The population peaked at around 3,500, but with only 100 or so residents today you’d never know that Oatman and nearby Gold Road became Arizona’s largest producers of gold.

World War II brought those heady days to an abrupt end when the mines closed due to the war effort’s need for more practical metals, sending Oatman’s miners elsewhere in furtherance of that aim. Fortunately, closing the mines wasn’t Oatman’s death knell because historic Route 66 bisects the town after it leaves Kingman and winds up and over the precipitous and corkscrew-curvy Sitgreaves pass (3,550’). Officially designated as Route 66 in 1926, with its eastern terminus in Chicago, the iconic highway for the masses became the lifeline between Southern California and the rest of the country. It’s the same thoroughfare traveled by the likes of Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and other depression-era dust-bowl victims desperate for a better life in the California orchards. And it was this constant flow of travelers through Oatman that gave it a much needed heartbeat, until 1952, when the new highway bypassed this historic little mountain town for a more direct route between Kingman and Needles. That really put the “ghost” in “ghost-town” as Oatman’s population shrank to a few dozen or more by the 1960s.

imageIn the 1970s the gaming industry at Laughlin breathed life back into Oatman. Located 30 miles down the hill on the far side of the Colorado river in Nevada, Laughlin today is a serious gambling mecca with world-class casinos like the Golden Nugget, Harrah’s, the Tropicana, Colorado Belle and the Edgewater, some of them promoting excursions to this relatively authentic Old West town, which probably accounts for the lack of parking at high noon, come to think of it.

Oatman also received a rejuvenating jolt with the world’s renewed interest in historic Route 66. Today they come from across the globe, some driving vintage Model Ts, to reminisce along that venerable old byway, that meandering well-trod cord of broken asphalt that snakes up and over the mountain pass and cuts right through the heart of Oatman. Route 66 was more than just a line between two points; it represented freedom and was the primary umbilical cord that defined the American heritage of an emerging mobile nation.

Fame also found Oatman back in the 30s. On March 18, 1939, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard tied the knot in Kingman, drove Route 66 up to Oatman and checked in at the still-standing Oatman Hotel where they spent their honeymoon and ... you know ... did things. Clark had so much fun he returned on other occasions for poker with the local miners, the desert mountain solitude and a welcome reprieve from the crushing burden of fame and fortune. Other movie stars found their way to Oatman at one time or another. Portions of “How the West was Won” (1962) were shot here, not to mention “Foxfire” (1955) and “Edge of Eternity” (1959).

imageBut the real draw to Oatman, for me at least, are the panhandling donkeys, or as they’re referred to in polite society, burros. Most days you’ll find a dozen or so ambling main street like they own the place. They are the descendants of earlier breeds that did the heavy lifting for those early prospectors. Short but noble in their own quirky way, when the services of these unsung heroes were no longer needed they were set free to roam across Arizona. The wild ones are hiding out all over the place, if you look.

Their dense, sleek coats range from dark chocolate brown to pure white with shades of gray in between. I’ve woken up in the backcountry many times by the raucous, hee-haw bray of those skittish feral beasts who tend to panic if you get too close. I had one chestnut gallop straight at me as if to attack, then come up short a hundred feet away, those foot-long ears twitching in the wind and big nostrils flaring. He huffed and puffed and gave me a quick snort as we eyeballed each other for about 30 seconds. Then he spun on a dime and galloped off, churning those short, stubby legs and breathing hard and running fast as the clippity-clatter of tiny hooves bounced off the deep canyon walls.

Oatman’s burros, on the other hand, are nothing of the sort. Though technically wild, they’re not really wild in any real sense of the word. Think of them more as hungry lap dogs who show up for breakfast and wander back into the mountains by sundown, bellies bursting. They’re persistent little runts, but endearing, even when they stalk you along the wooden sidewalks that run the length of town or trail you into one of the 40 gift, antique and craft shops in search of brunch.

They can get a little feisty, too, as they squabble with their brethren and lash out with a quick kick and a dull nibble. I’m not sure which is goofier; those drop-dead gorgeous baby burrows with the biggest brown eyes, or Grandma Moses in her pink jump-suit beaming a big toothless grin while clutching a bewildered burrow in a headlock as they both mug for the camera. Oatman without those burros just wouldn’t be Oatman.

imageLegend has it that the town was named after Olive Oatman. Her story made headlines across the West during the mid-1800s and is a testament to character, endurance and the capacity for survival in the most trying of circumstances; the stuff this country was built on. Accounts vary, but in the spring of 1851, Royce and Mary Ann Oatman from Illinois and their seven young children found themselves hopelessly stuck out in the middle of nowhere near the Gila river in southern Arizona, in Apache country.

They were destined for Fort Yuma 60-90 miles farther west along the rugged and rocky Gila trail, and eventually the good life in California. Their rickety wagon was pulled by two yoked cows and one skinny ox. After the family helped push the wagon to the top of a rocky bluff in a herculean, desperate effort, the starving beasts of burden gave up and ground to a halt. This was a bad thing.

Isolated and frightened, they realized they were short on food, and rapidly fading will power. The father, Royce, did his best to bring good cheer to the situation and downplay the reality of their plight. When he thought he was out of his family’s sight he tearfully broke down in the back of the wagon, sobbing. The man was desperate, trapped, mortified and at a complete loss. His loyal wife harbored these same gut-wrenching fears but buried them within, offering encouragement to her husband and fussing over her children, telling them everything was going to be all right.

And then Royce looked up and saw a group of Apaches approaching slowly on foot. His face turned ashen-white and the pit of his stomach sank. A decent, God-fearing honorable man, Royce offered his uninvited guests tobacco and pipes, and gave them a small token of food on demand even though his family was on the verge of starvation. After they smoked, the Indians moved off to engage in a quiet, suspicious conversation among themselves. Royce went back to packing the wagon but kept a close watch on these Native Americans out of the corner of his eye.

imageIt started with a chorus of loud, blood-curdling yells as the Indians rose up and ran toward the helpless family brandishing their weapons. Father Royce made a short but valiant stand but soon lay in a crumpled heap on the ground. Mother screamed for help clutching her infant to her chest but was swiftly felled. And one by one the Apaches clubbed the terrified children like baby seals. Moments later the Oatman massacre, the swift orgy of bloodletting, was over and the family lay shrieking and gurgling and moaning in the final throes of death.

Believing the 14-year-old boy, Lorenzo, was dead, they chucked his limp body over a 20-foot cliff onto the jagged slope below. But he wasn’t dead, and when he came to, mangled and in excruciating pain, he struggled back to the site of the massacre and witnessed the unbearable aftermath. His family’s contorted bodies lay strewn about, the provisions were ransacked, and two of his sisters, Mary Ann, 11, and Olive, 16, were missing.

Lorenzo was determined to return to the Pima villages 100 miles back down the trail. With super-human strength he staggered, crawled, limped and shuffled eastward, terrified that he might fall prey again to Indians, and fearful that he would starve or die of thirst along the way. Mexican wolves tracked him relentlessly. Two Pima Indians found him and gave him a small amount of food and drink and then left. Lorenzo, distrustful of these new benefactors, slinked off to hide among the green mesquite bushes and Palo Verde, and continued on. As he emerged from a canyon his mind played games for he thought he saw two white covered wagons on the distant plain. And then he passed out on the hard ground, only to be woken by the words, “My God, Lorenzo! What has happened?”

It was the welcome voice of a man named Wilder with whom the family had traveled earlier on. In time, Lorenzo recuperated sufficiently to join the wagons and, after burying his family on the Gila trail, reached Fort Yuma in the southwest corner of today’s Arizona, 8-10 days later. Undaunted, the young man devoted the next five years to finding his sisters, and to that end was helped by an unselfish private citizen named Henry Grinnell who dedicated many years to finding Lorenzo’s sisters, not knowing whether they were alive or dead.

imageAfter the Apaches threw Lorenzo off the cliff and ransacked the wagon, they dragged little Mary Ann and her older sister, Olive, to their village 100 miles across the hard, broken Arizona landscape of buttes, mesas, arroyos and stark mountain ranges. The girls were barefoot and suffered terribly beneath a scorching Southwest sun on what must be described as a Bataan Death March. The young one eventually fainted and was lugged the remaining distance over one warrior’s shoulder. If you’ve ever been to southern Arizona you know the terrain; it’s an inhospitable land of rocks, thorns, saguaro, ocotillo and other cactuses. It’s a thorny, forgotten land, burnt black and brown by time and the elements.

Somehow the girls survived the trip. They were greeted by 300 raucous villagers who paraded them like lambs to the slaughter, screeching and jeering, the specter of a most violent, lingering death constantly hanging over the sisters’ heads. But they were slaves, after all, and were spared; consigned to live a dog’s life in the service of their masters, hauling wood, hauling water, enduring beatings and foraging for seeds and insects in order to stay alive.

One year later the Oatman sisters were traded for a couple of horses, blankets and vegetables to a tribe of Mojave Indians who dragged them on another miserable 200 mile ordeal through the mountainous desert to present-day Needles southwest of Oatman. The renowned Mojave were fierce and warlike, yet farmers who tended small plots along the Colorado river. They also had a strong tradition of tattooing their faces.

imageWhen Olive and Mary Ann arrived they were again the center of attention with the war-like jeers and shouting. Still slaves, they were assigned a small garden plot to feed themselves, but that season was hard on everyone. The crop was meager and within a year little Mary Ann Oatman died of starvation in her big sister’s arms. Over the next three years Olive was reluctantly assimilated into the Mojave culture. As was the custom, her lower chin was tattooed with five thick vertical lines that ran from her lower lip down her chin with two triangles positioned at right angles to the outer lines.

Then, in February, 1856, five years after her family’s massacre, Olive was rescued near present-day Oatman. She was ransomed for some blankets and horses. According to Mr. Grinnell the young lady could barely speak English, and sat on the ground wearing a skirt of grass and bark holding her hands over her face, crying. When she arrived at Fort Yuma 20 days later, Olive insisted on wearing a real dress, which they provided her, and as she entered the fort it was to much cheering and applause.

Well, that’s my version of it, and according to conflicting sources like J. Ross Browne’s “Adventures in Apache Country” (1864) and other publications, it’s close enough, give or take a few minor facts. Olive and her brother Lorenzo eventually united and lived together in Los Angeles for a while. Then she moved to Oregon and back to New York and finally Sherman, Texas where she lived with her husband, John, and even adopted a little girl, Mamie. At the age of 65, Olive Oatman died of a heart attack in 1903.

imageEven after her death rumors persisted as to what really happened in the Indian villages. Was she raped? She vehemently denied it, not that it was anyone’s business. Did she bear the Mojave chief’s son two boys? That’s never been verified, although some claim even today that Oatman was actually named after one of Olive’s sons who became a successful miner in the area. I think I’ll stick with the original legend.

So the next time you’re making merry in Oatman with the other 500,000 visitors who traipse through every year, just remember that there’s more to the story of Oatman and countless other western towns; Oatman is not just your run-of-the-mill dog-and-donkey show. Behind the Wild West shootouts, tour bus holdups, the damsels dressed in frilly turn-of-the-century garb and the mine tours if they’re still running, there’s real history and real lives, hard-fought lives, some with bad endings.

imageAmong all the hoopla we tend to forget the hardship those early pioneers endured to lay the groundwork for this nation and secure these great but rapidly dwindling freedoms you enjoy today, like playing the slots down at one of those skyscraper casinos in Laughlin, coughing up second-hand smoke and slurping your fifth gin-and-tonic as you feed your children’s inheritance into those noisy but colorful machines one hopeful quarter after another, after another, after another, after another. After another.

After they take your last quarter, borrow some money and hop on up to Oatman for the Sidewalk Egg Fry or the bed races, or the Clark Gable and Carol Lombard look-alike contests. Or just go up there and watch grown men kill each other for fun, and feed the donkeys ... I mean, burros. But be careful, them furry critters eat a lot of carrots, and by-golly what goes in must come out. So look down now and then, and watch your step!


John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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