The Oatmans

The Oatman farm was a classic picture of early America. A small family farm in rural Vermont, with a rather large family inside. The patriarch of the family was a simple farmer named Lyman Oatman, who had settled the farm himself after the American Revolution.

Lyman’s father had fought in the Revolution on the side of the Colonists, so Lyman was one of the few to be considered a first generation American, who grew up on the hardship and heroism of the Revolution. After the war, Lyman was determined to make a name and household for himself. He built his farm, married his wife Lucy in 1801, and children soon followed.

Lyman and Lucy Oatman would eventually have seventeen children, which not entirely unusual for the time period; especially for a farmer in need of extra hands. On their farm in Vermont, the Oatmans were living the Jeffersonian version of the American dream.

In 1809, Lyman and Lucy gave birth to their fourth child, a boy they named Roys Oatman. While born in Vermont, Roys spent most of his childhood in a small western New York town called Locke. Lyman had moved the family to the New York farm in 1816, to escape the harsh winters and short growing season of Vermont.

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At Locke, Roys grew up. He worked on the farm and learned how to be a farmer. He was also raised to be a good Christian in what was a very religious household. The Oatmans were engulfed by the religious zeal and enthusiasm of protestant—largely Methodist—revivalists ministers who traveled the countryside giving fiery sermons and igniting a religious passion in their audiences.

This period is often referred to historically as the “Second Great Awakening,” and it touched many American families, especially in rural farming communities like the Oatmans.

In the early 1830’s, with America eagerly expanding west and seeking new opportunity, Lyman Oatman again moved his family, this time ultimately settling in Illinois. This relocation would have lasting and very impactful ramifications for the Oatman family.

By the time of the move to Illinois, Roys had grown up and was in his early twenties. In 1832, twenty-three-year-old Roys Oatman married Mary Ann Sperry, eighteen-year-old daughter of an Ohio farmer.

Roys and his new wife Mary purchased land near Lyman’s land in Hancock County, Illinois. The newlywed couple began their frontier life together. Roys worked the fields, and eventually set up a store in town. Mary almost immediately began having children, birthing their first daughter, Lucy, in 1834 and first son, Lorenzo, in 1836. Their third child, born September 7th, 1837, was the now famous Olive Ann Oatman.

Ultimately, Roys and Mary Oatman would have a total of seven children. Mary Ann—named after her mother—was born in 1843, followed by Roys Jr. in 1846, Charity Ann in 1848, and Roland in 1849. Roys Oatman was now living his own American dream. 

In April of 1839, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith arrived in western Illinois, not far from where Roys and Mary Ann Oatman were raising their family. This proved to be a critical, and fateful, moment in Oatman family history. The Oatmans were swept up in the wave of Mormon conversion, and their family became fairly devout Mormons. Their conversion and devotion to Mormonism would ultimately set them on an arduous journey west that would lead to their barbaric murders.

Of this traditional, religious, and apparently idyllic frontier family of nine, only Olive and Lorenzo would survive the events that were about to be set into motion.

A New Jerusalem

Joseph Smith and his followers, reacting to persecution and forced removal from several parts of the country, finally settled in Illinois, and set to work building what Smith imagined would be a “New Jerusalem.”

This new town was called Nauvoo, and was about thirty miles away from the Oatmans. Naturally, the Mormons living in Nauvoo began to preach, and spread the word of their prophet Joseph Smith to nearby settlers. It is unclear when exactly the Oatmans converted, but they were caught in the current of Mormon popularity and very attracted to the fervor of Mormon preaching—which probably impacted Roys greatly, given his childhood experiences with the revivalist style preaching of the Second Great Awakening.

By 1841, the Oatmans—and many of their neighbors—had become Mormon. The infusion of a large Mormon community on the Illinois countryside began to cause non-Mormons to grow concerned.

Non-Mormon Christians consistently looked down on the Mormon community either with fear or disdain. They did not like the Mormons insistence that they were the chosen people of God. They looked down upon the Mormon practice of Polygamy, and felt that it violated Gods will and threatened the traditional concept of marriage. They feared Joseph Smith, who some viewed as a power-hungry leader of a radical group.

Ultimately, in Illinois, as Mormon influence grew, so did the disdain toward them.

In 1844, some Mormons themselves began to question Smith’s leadership. That June, the Nauvoo newspaper published an article criticizing Smith for his attempt at politicizing the church and taking political power for himself.

Smith ordered his men to destroy the newspaper’s printing press. This act sparked outrage across the Illinois prairie; Joseph Smith was violating the first amendment. He fled into Iowa to escape arrest or worse, violence at the hands of the angry mob that had formed against him. The Governor of Illinois promised Smith that he would be safe if he returned to stand trial, to which Smith agreed.

As Smith sat in a holding cell, awaiting his trial, the angry mob of two-hundred anti-Mormons burst into the jail. They shot and killed Smith’s brother Hyrum first. Smith made a dash for the window—which was on the second story of the building—but was shot multiple times as he climbed out and fell dead to the street below.

The murder of Joseph Smith left an interesting and important void in the Mormon religion and the town of Nauvoo. Who would succeed the thirty-eight-year-old prophet that had started this religion? There was no succession plan put in place by Smith before his death, which fostered even more dissension among the Mormons.

Several people lay claim to the power left behind by Smith, all with varying levels of support from the members. Ultimately, the majority of the Mormon community chose Brigham Young, who had been the President of the Quorum of the Twelve—A church governing body—to be the next leader of the church.

While most Mormons followed Young, many were unsure of his legitimacy as the next leader of the Church. Among those who questioned Brigham Young’s leadership were Roys and Mary Oatman.

Brigham Young continued to build the “New Jerusalem” of Nauvoo. However, anti-Mormon sentiment only continued to grow in Illinois, and non-Mormon voices began to call for the removal of Young and his followers. By 1846, the debate began to boil over into violence between the two sides. Young finally decided it was best to find “New Jerusalem” somewhere further out west.

In the Spring of 1846, Young and his followers began to trickle out of Nauvoo and head west, eventually settling at the Great Salt Lake. Mary Oatman’s parents, who were devoted “Brighamites,” were on that initial journey with Young westward to their New Jerusalem. As the Sperry family said goodbye to their daughter and grandchildren, Mary’s father began trying to convince Roys and Mary to join them.

Roys and his father-in-law got into a heated argument and began hurling insults at each other. At one point, Roys, typically a happy and good-natured man, told his father in law:

“I see Father Sperry, it is no use to talk with you, I prophesy in the name of the lord that if you go west with your family, your children will go hungry and some will starve to death and your throats will be cut from ear to ear by Indians.”

This proved to be all too prophetic for Roys Oatman, as his family would meet the gruesome fate that he had predicted for his in-laws.[1]

Brewsterites

Roys and Mary Oatman were still devoted Mormons who worshipped and believed in Mormon texts, but they were without a leader that they believed in and would follow. Their prayers were answered when they met James Colin Brewster.

Brewster was a Mormon prophet who, when just a boy living with his parents in Springfield, Illinois, began having visions of ancient Mormon texts. He and his father would copy these texts down and present them as the word of God. This attracted a lot of attention and followers in Springfield, though Joseph Smith and the primary branch of the church rejected Brewster and his followers.

Smith likely saw Brewster as a threat to his power, so being critical of Brewster was another one of Smith’s calculated political moves. Smith had effectively made the “Brewsterites” out to be a radical and illegitimate sect of the religion. When Smith died and power within the church was fragmented, Brewster’s legitimacy increased.

One of the most important messages that Brewster received during his visions was of the location of a new land for the Mormons to build their New Jerusalem. Brewster was told that God had set aside the holy “Land of Bashan” in California, as the place where Mormons should settle.

In 1848, Brewster, skeptical of the legitimacy of Brigham Young’s leadership, claimed to have had a vision in which God anointed him the next leader of the Mormon Church. The twenty-two-year-old Brewster wrote an address to the Church of Christ and Latter-Day Saints, in which he said:

“The country designated for the commencement of this great work, is Eastern California, or the valley of the Colorado and Gila rivers, where the Saints (Mormons) are to gather from all the countries of the earth, and establish and build up the Kingdom of Righteousness, which shall never be left to other people, but shall stand forever.”

At some point, likely in 1848, Roys and Mary Oatman decided to join James Colin Brewster. The “Brewsterites” were planning on making the trip to “Bashan” in 1849, and the Oatman’s had resolved to be a part of this first journey west. Brewster had asked his followers to meet and gather in Independence, Missouri, in early July of 1849, and that together they would venture out to reach Bashan.

In the preceding years, Roys had grown even more religiously zealous. In early 1849, he began traveling the countryside and preaching Brewster’s message to his friends and neighbors. He was successful in converting some Mormons and at least one non-Mormon into joining Brewster’s journey to Bashan. The religious devotion, perhaps even fanaticism, of Roys Oatman is a critical aspect of his background that shapes his decision-making, and cannot be overlooked in terms of its importance to the events that follow.

In preparation for the journey, Roys sold the family farm and all of the possessions that they could not take with them for fifteen hundred dollars. Finally, in May of 1849, Roys Oatman, full of religious fervor, loaded up his wife and seven children into wagons and started southeast, to the Brewsterite rendezvous point; Independence, Missouri.

This would be the first of many decisions made by Roys Oatman that would, unbeknownst to him, lead to unthinkable tragedy for his family.

 

[1] Mary Oatman’s mother, father, and one of her brothers died from disease within a year of their departure. Roys incorrectly predicted the manner of death of his in laws, but he was correct in his estimation that they would die on their westward journey.

The Westward Journey

In early August of 1849, around ninety Brewsterites, following their prophet James Brewster, set off on the Santa Fe Trail. Their journey to Bashan was well over one thousand miles, and the travelers knew they had an arduous and dangerous task ahead of them.

The Santa Fe Trail offered a variety of threats to its travelers, ranging from disease, starvation, exposure, and potentially hostile Native Americans. All of these dangers were foremost in the mind of Roys Oatman as his family started off toward their New Jerusalem.

The romance of the journey would wear off quickly. As the journey went on, the travelers began to see that Brewster was no Joseph Smith or even Brigham Young. He was a visionary and a prophet, but did not have the temperament or experience to be an effective leader.

Dissension began to fester within the group, and much of it spurred on by Roys Oatman. The group often had disagreements that would turn into explosive arguments, and Roys was typically right in the middle of it. Serious discord and division were brewing that threatened to break the group apart.

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Despite Roys’s skepticism and the growing division within the group, they forged on. Together they reached the banks of the Arkansas River, and followed it to Bents Fort, which is in present-day Colorado. Here, the group faced a fork in the road.

The southern route was about one hundred miles closer to Santa Fe, but also required crossing a sixty mile wide desert with no supplies or water. The northern route, while longer, was better supplied and safer. This decision served as the boiling point for the already growing division within the group.

Brewster wanted to go north. Oatman and several other families wanted to go south. They could not agree, and after some argument, Oatman and the families who agreed with him decided to split off from Brewster and continue on the southern road. Splitting the wagon train made it more difficult for everyone, as they now collectively had fewer supplies and were more susceptible to Native American raids. The decision to split would prove to be another one of Roys Oatman’s fatal mistakes.

The group, now being led by Roys Oatman continued on. They struggled through the desert, and forged their way, town by town, along the trail through the New Mexico territory. The group was constantly low on supplies and forced to stop often due to bad weather and the need for rest and recuperation. They began to have more interaction with Native Americans, who they were already suspicious of. The increased Indian presence scared them greatly, but it was a risk they had to take in order to reach Bashan.

As the group went deeper west, they gradually began to lose people. Some died from disease, others decided they’d had enough of the trail and settled in one of the towns along the trail. This was especially the case when the group reached Tucson, as many of the settlers saw the opportunity to stay and find work.

Likely sometime in early 1851, around seventeen months after they had left Independence, the Oatmans and just two other families left Tucson to continue on their journey. For days they struggled through a desolate ninety mile stretch where they were constantly on guard for possible Indian attacks. They finally reached Maricopa Wells, where they stopped to recuperate.

At Maricopa Wells, the weary travelers were told it was not safe to continue on the trail. There had been numerous reports of hostile Indian attacks. Natives had been known to murder and rob settlers along this part of the trail. The two families traveling alongside the Oatmans had heard enough; they would be staying at Maricopa Wells and were not willing to risk their lives to continue.

Roys Oatman saw the danger in continuing, but he also had serious doubts about staying at Maricopa Wells. The area was in the midst of a serious drought, and the possibility that there would be no food at Maricopa Wells or the surrounding areas was a very real possibility. Roys Oatman found himself in a fix. In his mind, to stay would mean to likely starve, but to go would be putting his family at extreme risk. What was Roys Oatman going to do?

While Roys was struggling with this decision, Dr. John Leconte, an entomologist arrived with his guide at Maricopa Wells. He had just returned from Fort Yuma—which was a little bit less than one hundred miles away. Roys immediately went to speak to Dr. Leconte in order to get some idea of what the trail to Fort Yuma was like. Dr. Leconte assured Roys that he had not seen any Indians or experienced any Indian hostilities on the trail back from Fort Yuma. This was all Roys needed to hear. The Oatmans were going to continue on; alone.

The Oatmans left Maricopa Wells to make the trek to Fort Yuma, which sits right on the border between present day California and Arizona. The Oatmans were getting so tantalizingly close to actually reaching the land of Bashan that they had dreamed of in 1849. They had come so far and already endured so much, but the situation was starting to look quite grim to Roys. Seven days after they had left Maricopa Wells, Roys realized that his cattle were exhausted and underfed, and worse, he likely did not have enough supplies to sustain his family all the way to Fort Yuma.

Luckily for Roys, on this day they ran into Dr. Leconte once again, who was on the trail headed back to Fort Yuma from Maricopa Wells. Roys, seeing an opportunity to get much needed help, wrote a letter to the commander of Fort Yuma that Dr. Leconte would deliver. He pleaded with the fort, asking for horses and badly needed supplies. He ended the letter saying:

“There is my wife and seven children and without help, sir, I am confident we must (sic) perish.”

Dr. Leconte promised Roys he would deliver the letter and rode off ahead of the Oatman’s, carrying perhaps their best hope at survival in his hands.

Dr. Leconte had made it about thirty miles passed the Oatman’s, when, unbeknownst to Roys, disaster struck. Leconte and his guide had made camp when they were approached by Native Americans. A small group of Native Americans rode in to Leconte’s campsite and pretended to seek friendship, as they engaged in conversation with the Doctor and his guide.

While Dr. Leconte was distracted, other Native Americans were stealing the horses. By the time Leconte realized what was happening, it was too late. Leconte’s life was spared, but he had been robbed. As he began to walk the trail to Fort Yuma, he knew that the support he had promised Roys would be too late because he would not be able to deliver the message in time.

Doing the only thing he could do, he wrote a note warning the Oatmans of hostile Native Americans, explaining what had happened to him, and pinned it to a tree along the road.

The Last Night

It is unclear if Roys Oatman ever got Dr. Leconte’s note. When recounting their experience, Lorenzo and Olive say that they never saw the note and lament “what could have been,” if they had been properly warned about the attacks. However, there is some evidence that Roys did find the note and simply did not tell the children to try and keep them at ease.

Lorenzo reports that:

“I now plainly saw a sad, foreboding change in my father’s manner and feelings… Disheartening and soul-crushing apprehensions were written upon his manner, as if preying upon his mind in all the mercilessness of a conquering despair. There seemed to be a dark picture hung up before him, upon which the eye of his thought rested with a monomaniac intensity; and written thereon he seemed to behold a sad afterpart for himself, as if some terrible event had loomed suddenly upon the field of his mental vision, and though unprophesied and unheralded by any palpable notice, yet gradually wrapping its folds about him, and coming in, as it were, to fill his cup of anguish to the brim.”

One possible, even likely explanation for the sudden change in Roys demeanor would be the discovery of Dr. Leconte’s note. Why else would Roy suddenly feel the sense of impending doom?

The night of February 17, 1851, was the Oatmans last night together. They camped on the Gila River. The children were cold and nervous, as they could tell that their father was unsettled. They huddled around the campfire, not fully comprehending the situation or the danger that they were in.

The Oatman kids began talking about what they would do if they were attacked and kidnapped by Indians. Each child had a different plan of action, varying from running away to fighting back until the death. When it came to fourteen-year-old Olive’s turn, she said something unbelievably ironic. Olive told her siblings:

“Well, there is one thing; I shall not be taken by these miserable brutes. I will fight as long as I can, and if I see that I am about to be taken, I will kill myself. I do not care to die, but it would be worse than death to me to be taken a captive among them.”

While the kids conversed around the fire, Lucy, the oldest child, seventeen years old, was listening to her father weep quietly inside the wagon. Roys was completely overwhelmed and sobbed for an hour. Mary, in hushed tones, consoled her husband. Neither of them wanted to cause a stir that would frighten the children.

Roys knew that his family was in grave danger, perhaps because Leconte’s note had warned him not only of dangerous Indian attacks, but also that the supplies from Fort Yuma would not come. He must have been thinking about his decision to leave Maricopa Wells, and how he could possibly have led his family into this awful scenario. Roys must have been scared, ashamed and cripplingly worried about what the next days would bring. He felt responsible for the predicament that he and his family were now in.

Roys Oatman spent the night of February 17, 1851, his last on earth, absolutely terrified.

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