Renderings of the massacre that took the lives of six members of the Roys Oatman family on February 18, 1851, near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers (in present-day Arizona) derive, at least in part, from Royal B. Stratton’s Captivity of the Oatman Girls. Stratton’s 1857 narrative accompanied Olive and Lorenzo Oatman—the two survivors—on their speaking tours, but as independent scholar and writer Brian McGinty aptly reveals, the book and even the Oatmans’ circuit tours inaccurately and falsely represented the massacre and the events that followed. McGinty combines Stratton’s account with new and underused source material, and circumstantial evidence, to construct a carefully wrought portrait of this fascinating western saga.
One could compile a laundry list of McGinty’s innovative contributions to the historical record, from the route the immigrant parties followed to the number of attackers to the amount of time the Oatman girls spent in captivity (Lorenzo survived the massacre after being left for dead, but 13-year-old Olive and 8-year-old Mary Ann became captives, the latter dying probably in 1855). McGinty is more hesitant to blame the massacre on the Apaches than the Tolkapayas, since clubs were employed in the attack and because the Tolkapayas lived much closer to the vicinity than the Apaches. He locates the probable location of Olive and Mary Ann’s captivity in Wiltaika (present-day McMullen Valley), and he suggests that while among the natives, Olive likely married or at least engaged in some level of sexual intimacy. McGinty also pays special attention to the postcaptivity years of Olive and Lorenzo.
Students of Mormon history will find special interest in McGinty’s close attention to the religious context of the Oatmans’ ill-fated odyssey—their ties to Mormonism and their loyalty to Colin Brewster, the “Boy Prophet” who attracted a small following of Mormon dissenters after the death of Joseph Smith, and his prophesies of a fertile “Land of Bashan.” After all, as McGinty rightly points out, without this connection to Mormonism the massacre probably would never have happened.