Olive Oatman’s Rescue: A True Indian Captive Story

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about the Oatman family massacre and the subsequent Indian captivity of Olive Oatman.

As the United States grew in the second half of the 19th century and pioneers answered the call to “go west,” stories of the successes and dangers of that journey were printed in newspapers across the country. People have always been either excited or afraid, or a combination of both, of the unknown—and the great unknown was what greeted those early pioneers. One of their fears was the possible danger that awaited them at the hands of the Native American peoples.

Some whites were taken prisoner during American Indian attacks on wagon trains, and the retelling and publishing of Indian captive stories was very popular with the public at that time. Stories like that of the Oatman family massacre—and, ultimately, the rescue of Indian captive Olive Oatman—helped feed the hatred and fear of the Native American population.

photo of Olive Oatman, 1857

Photo: Olive Oatman, 1857. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Wikimedia Commons.

The Oatman Family Massacre

The Oatman family (parents Royse and Mary Ann Oatman, and their seven children) were part of a wagon train bound for the west in 1850. Eventually due to differences in opinion, they split from their group and were traveling on their own when some Apache (or perhaps Yavapai) Indians attacked them along the Gila River in present-day Arizona in February 1851. In this attack the entire family was killed except for sisters Olive (age 14) and Mary Ann (age 7), as well as their brother Lorenzo who was clubbed and left for dead, but recovered. Olive and Mary Ann were taken to live with their Indian captors. Just before the attack, Royse Oatman had sent a letter to Fort Yuma asking for assistance because he was sure that, without any help, he and his family would die.*

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The Captivity of Olive and Mary Ann Oatman

One year later the two sisters were traded to a group of Mohave Indians, who seemingly welcomed the girls into their tribe by giving them traditional blue chin tattoos. During their time with the Mohave, younger sister Mary Ann Oatman died of starvation during a drought. Finally, after a total of five years of Indian captivity, the army rescued Olive Oatman by exchanging some material goods for her in February 1856.** She was 19 years old.

This 1856 newspaper account summarizing her capture by the Native Americans and subsequent release is representative of news articles that appeared throughout the United States. Such newspaper articles must have served as fodder for people’s belief in the savage nature of the native peoples, and what may befall pioneers who crossed the trails heading west.

article about Olive Oatman's rescue from Indian captivity, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 April 1856

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 April 1856, page 2

As time went on the story of Olive’s Indian captivity was immortalized in books and numerous newspaper articles. In some cases, men claiming to have been part of the rescue efforts also told their story. One such man, W. F. Drannon, is now known to have fabricated the tales he published in books and newspapers. His story of “rescuing” Olive included him single handedly saving her. Even in our ancestors’ days there were those who wanted their 15 minutes of fame!

article about W. F. Drannan's claim that he rescued Olive Oatman from Indian captivity, Denver Post newspaper article 15 April 1899

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 15 April 1899, page 5

Like any story, some embellishments are bound to occur over time which can make for a murky recounting of historical events.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 10 May 1858

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 10 May 1858, page 2

Interestingly enough, this old 1800s newspaper article—while telling about the Oatman massacre and captivity—also provides a nice genealogy that includes the name of Olive’s parents, where they were married, and their westward migration route. While the story of the killings and subsequent kidnapping of the girls is described, it is also reported that after the attack, Lorenzo happened upon a group of “friendly” Indians and they “humanely took him in their protection.”

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Telling the Oatman’s Story

Like a modern-day expose snatched from the headlines, Olive’s story was quickly packaged into an 1857 book by Royal B. Stratton entitled Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life among the Apache and Mohave Indians.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 3 April 1857

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 3 April 1857, page 3

An 1857 newspaper article printed prior to the publication of the book seems to promise that it is a must-read: “…there is an abundance of material to render it a thrilling and interesting narrative.”

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Weekly Oregonian newspaper article 21 February 1857

Weekly Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 21 February 1857, page 2

Olive took to the lecture circuit after the book’s release so that she could tell her story. This provided interested audiences the opportunity to hear her version of the events and gaze upon her tattooed chin, a curiosity among white Victorians. It also provided Olive with a way to secure funds for her education and living expenses. Her lecturing concluded once she married and settled in Texas, where she eventually died in 1903.

article about Olive Oatman lecturing about her Indian captivity, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 18 February 1859

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 February 1859, page 1

What parts of Olive’s story were fact melded into fiction or at the very least embellishment, may never all be sorted out. Many rumors and falsehoods were told about Olive, satisfying the public thirst for “celebrity” gossip much as is done today. While not the first woman to share her true story of being held captive by the Indians, Olive became well-known for her prominent facial tattoo which served as a constant reminder of the dangers of the western frontier.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Are there any Indian captive stories in your family history? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

Related Indian Captivity Articles:

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* Letter signed by Oatman to Brevet Major S.P. Heintzelman, February 15, 1851.
Transcript of letter. BANC MSS C-E 64:18. Images of Native American. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/39.html. Accessed 28 September 2014.
** Sherrie S. McLeRoy, “Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman,” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffagr. Accessed 28 September 2014. Uploaded on 12 June 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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New Family Story Find: My 18th Century Uncle Jonathan Dore

Last year I wrote about my relative Elizabeth (Meader) Hanson (1684-1737) who, along with her children, was kidnapped by Abenaki Indians on 7 September 1724 and taken to the Indians’ village along the St. Francis River in Canada. They were held there for over two years. (See: Find & Preserve Your Family’s Stories.)

Powerful. Memorable. That story has been told and retold in our family for the past 290 years. Every night when we were young we asked our grandfather to tell us that story. We loved it. It was real—it was our family story.

Indian Raids Continued

Recently I found this 1749 newspaper article with a report from Timothy Brown about his attempts to learn more about—and to free—captives still held by the Indians.

He was able to get in and around the Abenaki village and learned about multiple captives, including this specific reference:

There is also a Boy who was taken from Rochester in New Hampshire, with the Indians at St. Francois, his Name is Jonathan Dore.

article about Jonathan Dore being taken captive by Abenaki Indians, Boston Post Boy newspaper article 10 July 1749

Boston Post Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 July 1749, page 2

Jonathan Dore?
Rochester, New Hampshire?
St. Francis Indians?

This is sounding just like the story of my relative Elizabeth Hanson, who was also taken prisoner by the Abenaki Indians from St. Francis.

This Jonathan Dore has to be one of my relatives, too—the same Jonathan Dore who was my 5th-great uncle.

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New England Had Had Enough

The Abenaki and the French were taking American women and children captive so that they could sell them back to their families.

It was time to stop these atrocities—and that was one of the reasons the French & Indian War was launched (1754-1763).

Attack on Fort William Henry

During the war there was an attack on Fort William Henry in August of 1757.

The following account comes from Terror in Rochester by Linda Sargent, 2008:

“The fort was manned by the British, including many New Hampshire men. The siege had ended and the British had surrendered the fort to the French who were being aided by the Indians. There are various accounts of what happened next, but British soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.

“One man who managed to escape from the fort was from Dover, NH. When he returned to Dover, he told how he had been pursued by Indians. One of them had caught up to him and lifted his tomahawk.

“When their eyes met, under the war paint and Indian dress he recognized the eyes of a young boy he had known well when he worked as a teamster logging on the Salmon Falls River and visiting at the Dore’s home in Rochester. He knew this white Indian was Jonathan Dore. Jonathan recognized him, as well, and dropped his tomahawk to his side and left. No one believed the man’s story when he returned to Dover.”

See: http://bit.ly/Vj2ZVD

Jonathan Dore had been sighted again, 11 years after he was taken by the Abenaki.

New Englanders Settle the Score

The Abenaki had been terrorizing New Englanders for decades. The old scores were settled on 4 October 1759 when Robert Rogers and his Rangers attacked the Indians’ village.

The following account comes from Wikipedia:

“Rogers and about 140 men entered the village, which was reportedly occupied primarily by women, children, and the elderly, early that morning, slaughtered many of the inhabitants where they lay, shot down many who attempted to flee, and then burned the village. Rogers and his men endured significant hardships to reach the village from the British base at Fort Crown Point in present-day New York, and even more hardship afterwards. Chased by the French and vengeful Indians, and short on rations, Rogers and his men returned to Crown Point via the Connecticut River valley.”

Jonathan Dore Witnessed Rogers’ Attack on the Abenaki Village

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s archives, I found out more of the story.

Jonathan Dore, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 5 January 1905

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 5 January 1905, page 2

The above historical newspaper clipping is only part of the long account about Jonathan Dore that appeared in the Aberdeen Daily News. The whole article gives a good overview of what had happened to Jonathan Dore.

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According to the article, Jonathan Dore (1734-1797)—my 5th-great uncle—was kidnapped on “Salmon Falls Road in Rochester [New Hampshire]” by the Abenaki on 26 June 1746, when he was only 12 years old!

Jonathan Dore married an Abenaki Indian woman and they had two children. When Major Robert Rogers attacked their village in 1759 to avenge the attack on Fort William Henry, Jonathan Dore “witnessed the massacre.”

Everyone in the village was killed and it was set on fire. “Among the ruins he found the bodies of his wife and children. He buried them in one grave and with them his attachment to the Indians.”

In 1760 Jonathan Dore returned home to Rochester, New Hampshire. His family had moved across the Salmon Falls River to Lebanon, Maine, where he also settled.

The newspaper article concluded:

He settled in Lebanon, Me., married again and spent there the remainder of his days, famous for his marksmanship, especially with the bow and arrow, and known to every one as “Indian Dore.”

Wow—we would have loved to have heard that family story as kids!

Our “uncle” was not much older than we were when he was captured by the Indians, and then held captive for over 13 years—what a great story.

Preserve your family’s stories.

Find them in the old newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives—preserve those stories and pass them down to the rising generation.

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Old West Stories in Newspapers: Here Comes the Morning Stagecoach!

Maybe it was because of Father’s Day, but there were a lot of old western movies on TV this past weekend. Good ones, too, starring Gregory Peck, John Wayne, and more.

Daily Ohio Statesman -  Stagecoach Story Newspaper Article 1860

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 10 May 1860, page 3

So, it was no surprise when I was combing through GenealogyBank today that I found this great newspaper article about an old western stagecoach, published in the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 10 May 1860, page 3.

It read like the plot of a TV western—only these stories of the old Wild West were real.

This historical newspaper article reports that the Overland Mail Coach arrived with passengers “Lieut. Cogswell, of the USA, Dr. J. P. Breck, and Mr. and Mrs. Arnold.”

They brought news from the Texas frontier and points west. “They report the Indians very troublesome in the vicinity of Mustang Pond [Nevada], and between Mountain Pass Station and Phantom Hill.”

The stagecoach passengers provided details of several attacks:

“A blacksmith in the employ of the Overland Mail Company, and three men living at Mountain Pass, were murdered by the Comanches the day before the stage passed there.

“Fifteen Indians stopped at Mustang Pond and committed sundry depredations upon the whites.

“The scout for this stage saw some bands of Indians at the latter place, looking with eager eyes towards the coach, and the passengers prepared themselves for a fight, but the red skins were too wary, and it did not become necessary to fire upon them.

“Col. Fountleroy had started on a tour to select a site for Fort Butler.

“Maj. Ruff had been ordered with five companies of rifles to take the field immediately against the Kiowa and Comanches. His depot was at Fort Butler.

“Several ranging companies were out in the vicinity of Jackborough.”

Clearly, riding a stagecoach in the Wild West was just as dangerous as western movies later portrayed it!

Every stop was an adventure. This old Pony Express Route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861 map (courtesy, Library of Congress) shows the overland route many travelers took from Missouri to California.

Historical Map of Pony Express Route that Stagecoaches Followed - 1860-1861

Pony Express Route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861

The strength of historical newspapers is that they provide a daily record of the past.

GenealogyBank has the largest online newspaper archive, full of details about our American heritage. You can find stagecoach passenger lists, information about the early American pioneers and Native Americans and so much more in GenealogyBank. Carefully review GenealogyBank’s 1.2 billion records for the details of your family’s history.

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List of Private Claims – 1815-1881 – Online

John and Jane Q. Public have been petitioning Congress for all types of reasons for over 200 years. The reason for each request may vary – but Congress considered every request.

In 1880 the Senate, presided over by William A. Wheeler (1819-1887), authorized the publication of the List of Private Claims – that listed all claims brought before the Senate from 4 March 1815 to 3 March 1881. The list was so long – 2,056 pages – that the Senate published it in two volumes. This list is in GenealogyBank.

(Photo of William A. Williams, Library of Congress, digital ID cwpbh.03976)

The full title describes it: List of private claims brought before the Senate of the United States from the commencement of the Fourteenth Congress to the close of the Forty-sixth Congress. Prepared under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate, pursuant to the orders of the Senate of April 9, 1840; February 27, 1841; February 8, 1849; March 3, 1855; and March 16, 1866; the act of July 20, 1868, making appropriations for sundry civil expenses of the government for the year ending June 30, 1869; and the resolution of the Senate of June 16, 1880. December 21, 1880.

In these typical examples from volume 1, page 931 we see that:

H.W. Jernigan of Georgia had petitioned the Indian Affairs Committee for “Indemnity for Indian deprivations during the Creek War”

Martha Jernigan petitioned “For property stolen by the Indians in the Florida War”

John B. Jerome petitioned “For property destroyed during the War of 1812″

Jerome & McDougal – petitioned for the “Confirmation of land title”

Margaret Jerome petitioned for an “Increase of pension”

James Jewett petitioned to be released from prison.

Some were “passed” as John B. Jerome’s request and others, like James Jewett’s request were rejected.

You may search these volumes on GenealogyBank:

List of Private Claims ….. (1880/1881) – Volume One

List of Private Claims ….. (1880/1881) – Volume Two

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