"The Town Named for a Kidnapped Woman With a Mojave Chin Tattoo "

Olive Oatman

Once upon a time in the west, 14-year-old Olive Oatman’s family sought a new future with the Brewsterites. Self-proclaimed prophet John Brewster declared that God had revealed to him a new land called Bahsan in California. Breaking with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Brewster and his followers left Missouri in search of the prophesized land. So it came to pass that the Oatman family fatefully loaded their meagre supplies and eight children onto a wagon in search of paradise.

Leaving Independence, Missouri on the 5th of August 1850 the party numbering between 85 and 93 pioneers quickly began to fracture. Dissension and dysentery abounded, and by the time the Oatman’s reached Maricopa Wells in Arizona the party numbered far fewer. In Maricopa Wells they faced a difficult choice, the only route forward was barren and frequented by hostile Native Americans. But with dwindling supplies, turning back was no better. For reasons lost to history, the Oatman’s pressed on, leaving the remaining families behind.

The Oatman Massacre

Olive Oatman 1838–1903, by Benjamin F. Powelson
Olive Oatman 1838–1903, by Benjamin F. Powelson

The story goes that on the fourth day the Oatmans were approached by a group of Native Americans seeking tobacco and food. At some point during the encounter, the family came under attack. After killing most of the family members, fifteen-year-old Lorenzo Oatman was clubbed and left for dead. He would survive and retell the story days later at a nearby settlement. Meanwhile, Olive (14), and her sister Mary Ann (7) began their new life as slaves to the Yavapai.

Olive Oatman would spend the next five years a slave. Eventually, she was traded to the Mojave and began to assimilate to their ways. In fact, she recounted in a later biography “to the honour of these savages let it be said; they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me.”In 1856, however, rumours began to spread that told of a white woman living among the Mojave as one of them. When these rumours proved true, Olive was forced to leave the tribe and returned to Fort Yuma.

Olive’s Return

She rapidly became a sensation. Partly because the story of the Oatman Massacre still lived on through Lorenzo’s recounting of the events. But also because Olive bore a traditional Mohave tattoo on her chin in keeping with their custom. To the Mojave, she was known as Oach and the nickname, Spansta. Spansta is an indelicate Mohave word meaning rotten womb or unquenchable lust. A friend of hers later in life would tell of her grief at leaving behind a husband and two sons, but she would never confirm this story officially.

Met with cheers when she arrived at Fort Yuma, Olive’s story spread like wildfire across the nation. So, when it came time to name a nearby tent city at the base of the Black Mountains, it was given her name. And that is how a small mining settlement would forever after be known as Oatman.

The Town of Oatman

The Town of Oatman - Photo by Mike McBey

Beginning its history as a ramshackle settlement, Oatman was home to a small group of miners seeking their fortune. Then, in 1915, a $10 million gold find transformed the city into a Wild West boom town. In one year alone its population exploded, and the village quickly became home to more than 3,500 miners seeking their fortunes in the Black Mountains of Mojave County.

In fact, Oatman residents mined roughly $2,600,000,000 worth of gold (in today’s prices) from the Black Mountains and surrounding hills. Mining operations finally came to an end in the 1920s. But, by good fortune, the city found itself along the famous Route 66. So, the former mining town quickly pivoted to become a tourist destination. Suddenly a favourite stop along the legendary highway, the character of Oatman remains in all its photogenic Wild West glory.

Oatman Hotel

Photo by Joshua Noble CC by-sa

One of the most notable landmarks in the city of Oatman is its historic hotel. Built in 1902, the two storey adobe building features eight rooms and no shortage of ghost stories. First, there is the tale of an Irish Miner (known as Oatie the Ghost), who drank himself to death in 1930, dying behind the hotel. Not surprisingly, locals tell of many ghosts that haunt the hotel’s halls, but two of them are quite famous.

Legend has it that after marrying Carole Lombard, Clark Gable chose the Oatman Hotel for their wedding night. The Oatman became an escape from the paparazzi and their fame, and so they returned many times over the years. Sadly, Carole Lombard met her demise in a plane crash in 1942. While Clark Gable remarried, following his death it is said he and Carole have returned to their secret oasis to relive a happier time.

The Oatman Hotel Saloon

The Oatman Hotel Saloon - Photo by Victor Solanoy CC by-sa

No mention of the Oatman Hotel would be complete without describing the famous saloon. Thousands of one dollar bills cover almost every available surface. As it turns out, this is the Oatman Hotel’s version of a guestbook. Patrons will often sign their names to one dollar bills and then staple them to the walls, ceiling, and furniture. The result is a rather expensive decor like no other.

Oatman Today

Jackass Junction in Oatman - Photo by dconvertini CC by-sa
Photo by dconvertini CC by-sa

If you find yourself travelling down Route 66, no town has the Wild West touch that Oatman does. Almost every building is rich with western stylings, and western motifs. To add to its charm, the descendants of the original miner’s burros roam the town free and without care. These wild burros only add to the magic of this village stuck in time.

Photographing Oatman

Oatman has become a trendy tourist destination in recent years with the growth of nearby Laughlin, Nevada which offers day trips to the town. However, this should not discourage the travelling photographer. There is much to see and take in at this strip of civilization along Route 66, and an early or late visit will provide spectacular images.

Visiting in the winter is also a great time to avoid the crowds and the heat. The rare light dusting of snow the region receives will add contrast to your photos and discourage the casual tourists that visit the town. Or, if people are your thing, it should come as no surprise that this area is quite popular with bikers who will add some character to an already rich western tapestry.

Remember to pack light, bring water and enjoy exploring this stunning Wild West Mecca. Oatman may be the best stop along Route 66, and in addition to being photogenic, it is rich with history. A visit there will not leave you disappointed.

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