Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Strange Twist In The Oatman Saga: "Dr. Bugs"

April 18, 2017
   Tracking the Oatman massacre clues through the desert badlands of Gila Bend is slow going and grim work. Even today, the vast, dry river bottom is quite a daunting place to traverse in a Jeep, much less in a wagon, being pulled by exhausted oxen in the year 1851. The nearest settlement at that time was Tucson, more than a hundred miles southeast, with barely a couple hundred, very scared souls, cowering behind presidio walls. The Apaches had decimated the population and raided the place at will, until it was very close to being abandoned.

   Everything to the north of Tucson was strictly In-din country. Still, the Oatmans and two other families pushed on from the Old Pueblo to Maricopa Wells, a village of friendly Pimas and Maricopas (just south of present day Phoenix). Two of the last three wagons dropped off there but, based on a report from someone who had just been on the trail, the Oatmans pushed on.


Daily Whip Out: "Oatmans Traverse The Gila Bend"

The report came from a real life, crazy, whirling dervish character:


Daily Whip Out: "Dr. John Lawrence LeConte"

   As the Oatmans were deciding whether to venture on from Maricopa Wells, two riders came in from the west. One of them was a 25-year-old entomologist, looking for coleoptera. In other words, beetles. This son of a wealthy east-coast industrialist, he was a graduate of New York's College of Physicians and Surgeons. He related to Royce Oatman the fact that he—the doctor—and his hired guide, Sonorian Juan, had traversed the entire trail from Camp Yuma to the villages and they hadn't even seen any Indians, much less signs of Indians. This is where it gets tragic (Royce Oatman probably pushed on based on this report) and quite bizarre.

The Strange Case of Dr. Bugs
   Dr. LeConte (his father styled it as Le Conte, but the son preferred it mooshed together) had traveled by sea to San Francisco in 1849, where he explored the rich areas around San Francisco, collecting specimens of beetles everywhere (at some point he sent home to his father, 10,000 beetles preserved in alcohol). Then, from the Bay area, the good doctor traveled down to San Diego, by stagecoach, where he explored a dry lake bed east of San Diego, then, along with another physician, the two explored the Colorado River between the Yuma Crossing and the Gulf of California.


The serpentine Colorado River area below Camp Yuma Dr. LeConte explored.
It wasn't the safest place to be looking for bugs either.

And now, here he was, in February of 1851 with Juan The Sonorian, traversing the Gila River, looking for more bugs.

   You can't make this stuff up. 

   Studying his movements and his antics is mind boggling. I imagine he was exhausting simply to witness. He reminds me of a Roadrunner cartoon, shooting here and there, darting in and out, always on the lookout for his precious specimens, and, all of this, right in the middle of one of the most tragic episodes of the Westering experience.

   On the sixth day out from Maricopa Wells, the Oatmans were overtaken by Dr. LeConte and Juan the Sonorian, riding on horseback. In less than a week, the two had visited Tucson—close to a 100 mile run—collected specimens, returned to the Pima and Maricopa villages, then set out for the Colorado River where they ran right up on the rear tail gate of the Oatman wagon.

Beep! Beep!

   The Doctor and Juan discovered a depressing scene. The Oatmans were bogged down and their animals were almost collapsing and their food supplies were low. So, at Royce's suggestion, LeConte agreed to take a note to Major Heintzelman at Camp Yuma, beseeching the commander to come to the Oatman's assistance. Grabbing the note, LeConte and Juan blasted on down the trail.

   The day after they left the Oatmans, February 16, the two encountered four Indians on the trail armed with bows and arrows. Juan took them to be "Yumas" (Quechans) and, not friendly. Rebuffing their entreaties to parlay, the two tried to move on, but the Indians followed, then disappeared. The Doc and Juan made camp in a secluded canyon, and when they woke up their two horses were gone.


   LeConte sent Juan on to Camp Yuma on foot with the note from Royce Oatman while the doctor posted a card on a tree, warning the Oatmans of "the nearness of Apaches." A note they probably didn't live to see.

   When LeConte finally arrived at Yuma at the end of February (the Oatman massacre took place on Feb. 18) he demanded that Heintzelman send immediate help, but the commander pleaded he had no animals fit for the journey. When the commander finally relented and sent two soldiers out to reconnoiter, they came back with the news that the Oatmans had all been killed. Heintzelman then angrily turned on LeConte saying he should have stayed with the Oatmans. In his diary, the commander contemptuously called LeConte "Dr. Bugs."

"Some people like charity at other people's expense."
—Brevet Major Heintzelman, referring to Dr. Bugs

  LeConte never stopped moving. From Arizona he traveled to Europe, Egypt and Algiers and he was in Honduras for the building of the Honduras Interoceanic Railway. He moved to Philadelphia in 1852 and became known as the father of the American beetle study.

"And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make."
—The Beatles


2 comments:

  1. Nice closing quote.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Now, there's a true Beatles' fan.

    ReplyDelete

Post your comments