The question has been asked, why weren't the Oatmans more wary on that February day in 1851? And why didn't they put up more resistance to the Yavapai attackers they met on the rocky trail near Talking Rocks?
Daily Whip Out: "Royce's Rough Road of Bad Decisions"
Yes, the Oatmans were wary, but they were also tired and discouraged. They had tried to cross the Gila River the night before, but their oxen were so weak they couldn't make it across, so the family camped on a spit of sand in the middle of the river and the water kept rising and putting out their meager fire. I don't think they got much sleep. Royce Oatman allegedly cried for an hour in the wagon, probably admitting to his wife what a mistake he had made by pushing on alone from Maricopa Wells where they left behind the last two families who had been traveling with them.
In the morning the Oatmans pulled themselves together and successfully made it across the river, but then they had to make it up the steep roadway to the bluff, where the rough wagon road, leaves the river bottom, and the jaded oxen couldn't make the grade, so most of the family (the mother, Mary Ann was eight months pregnant) had to unload the entire wagon and help push the wagon to the top, then walk back down the grade and bring up all the baggage and equipment, by hand. The oldest boy, Lorenzo, 14, was just putting the last of the luggage back in the wagon when the Indians walked up from behind them.
The actual ridge, the Oatmans were trying to climb up on, February 18, 1851.
So, yes, the Oatmans were wary but they were also weary and exhausted. When they saw the Indians approaching, Royce told the family not to panic. He had dealt with Indians before and everything would be alright. He would be nice to them and reason with them and they would go on their way.
Of course, the raiding party must have spotted the extreme vulnerability of the party immediately (Royce's rifle was in the wagon and he probably didn't retrieve it for fear it would provoke them). As the Yavapais played their hand out, demanding more food, rudely mocking Royce's protestations, they kept pushing the situation farther and farther until, upon getting little or no resistance, they finally made their decision to strike.
J. Ross Browne's drawing of the Oatman graves in 1864, also depicting the road, in middle background, the doomed family had just climbed. The attack occurred on top of the bluff.
Weary & Wary vs. Armed & Dangerous
Two days prior to this, these same Indians tried to overpower the aforementioned Dr. LeConte ("Dr. Bugs") and Juan The Sonorian near the same spot and here is how Olive (actually Stratton, her ghost writer, for "Captivity of the Oatman Girls")) narrates what happened in that situation:
"Dr. Lecount (sic). . .camped about thirty miles ahead of us, turned his horses into a small valley hemmed in by high mountains, and with his guide slept until about daybreak. Just as the day was breaking and preparations were being made to gather up for a ride to the fort (Yuma) that day, twelve Indians suddenly emerged from behind a bluff hill near by and entered his camp."
Notice, like with the Oatmans, the raiders simply walked into their camp, unlike in the movies where arrows fly and the raiders invariably launch a ferocious and stealthy surprise attack.
"Dr. Lecount, taken by surprise by the presence of these unexpected visitants, seized his arms, and with his guide kept a close eye upon their movements, which he soon discovered wore a suspicious appearance. One of the Indians would draw the doctor into a conversation, which they held in the Mexican tongue; during which others of the band would with an air of carelessness edge about, encircling the doctor and his guide, until in a few moments, despite their friendly professions, their treacherous intentions were plainly read."
The Yavapais were bold enough to face off with the two well-armed travelers, whereas with the Oatmans, nobody in the family—Royce, or his son Lorenzo significantly—were even holding firearms during the parlay.
"At the suggestion of his bold, intrepid, and experienced guide, they both sprang to one side, the guide presenting to the Indians his knife, and the doctor his pistol. The Indians then put on the attitude of fight, but feared to strike."
So the raiders crouched like they intended to fight, but then at the last moment backed off. Were they testing the two, or, did they have another objective? Juan (in the Oatman narrative he is called "Manuel") became "enraged at their insolence, and would again and again spring, tiger-like toward them crying at the top of his voice, 'terrily, terrily!'"
This has to be a bad Spanish translation: "terrily"? Could Stratton have meant "Ondelay"? Be on your way! Or, "Get out of here!" Or, perhaps "Terminar," or "Terminala," which according to my Estudiante de Espanole-inclined wife, Kathy, means, "Terminate immediately!"
At any rate, the "Indians soon made off," but, as it turns out, the 12 Indians who had engaged with them, feigning a fight, etc., were doing so partly as a distraction so that their comrades could steal the two traveler's "mules and horse."
In the Oatman encounter, two days later, one of the Indians mentions two horses down in the brush, which seems to be a reference to this encounter and the stealing of Dr LeConte's mounts.
It's more than a little shocking the subtle but significant differences between the two encounters, and how being wary—or kind!—isn't enough. The 17 Yavapais had no problem overwhelming all 9 of the unarmed Oatmans, whereas they were repulsed, or, at least, deferred from their ultimate goal of killing the intruders and taking all their stuff by a guy holding a knife and another guy—a bug collector!—holding a pistol. Sometimes might is, in fact, right.
"You can't challenge tradition unless you understand it."
—Old Vaquero Saying
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