Oatman, Arizona day: A center of Western lore and lovable burros

Burros stand south of the Oatman Hotel just before a staged shootout, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — It’s a quintessential Historic Route 66 relic. It’s an example of what Radiator Springs of “Cars” fame could have been if, even though bypassed by a major freeway, visitors would have kept on coming.

Oatman, Arizona, resembles the tourist-trap model espoused by Tombstone, Arizona, complete with two daily staged shootouts. Visitors can find all kinds of trinkets along its main thoroughfare. The main attraction, however, is its free-roaming burros that are the descendants of burros used during its mining heyday. They are technically “wild” but feel more domesticated due to their acclimatization to the multitude of tourists who regularly descend on the town.

Roman Malach, in his 1975 booklet “Oatman: Gold Mining Center” that is for sale in several shops within the town, wrote:

“It is said that untold mineral wealth exists underground in the Oatman area. In the meantime – all is quiet in Oatman, where less than 200 people reside in this former mining town, visited by throngs of people on each weekend. Visitors come and go, and even come back, because there is so much to see and to visualize the enormity of mining operations in Oatman.”

For the most part, these statements still hold true today except that visitors are not just confined to the weekends. They come in droves any day of the week.

Oatman’s namesake

The town derives its name from Olive Oatman, a victim of a famous Indian abduction. 

The Oatman family, Royce (or Roys depending on the source) and Mary Ann and their seven children, began traveling west from Independence, Missouri to California starting in August 1850. The family was part of a group known as the Brewsterites. Led by a man named James Brewster, the group broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of a few disagreements with the faith, chief among them their belief that California, not Utah, was the place the Church should settle and establish its headquarters, wrote Chuck Nugent in a 2020 story for “Wander Wisdom.” The original group numbered just under 100 people, but tensions arose over Brewster’s leadership and it split into two, Brewster leading his remaining followers along a northern route while Royce Oatman took charge of the other group and followed a southern course.

A restaurant in Oatman, Arizona bears the name and shows a picture of its namesake, Olive Oatman, on its exterior, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

When the Oatman group reached Maricopa Wells northwest of Tucson in February 1851, they were warned that the route ahead towards California was dangerous, both because of inhospitable desert terrain and hostile Indians. The other families in the traveling company decided to heed the warnings and stayed, but the Oatmans decided to forge onward to California, Nugent explained.

Four days after leaving Maricopa Wells, the Oatmans encountered Native Americans asking for tobacco, food and guns. Concerned about giving away their precious provisions, the Oatmans refused the Indians’ request, which led to violence and resulted in the murder of the two parents and four of the children. The Indians captured 14-year-old Olive and her seven-year-old sister, Mary Ann, but left injured 15-year-old brother, Lorenzo, for dead. Lorenzo later regained consciousness and managed to make his way to a nearby settlement and survive, vowing to recover his two sisters.

The two girls’ Yavapai captors turned them into slaves, forcing them to forage for food, carry wood and other menial tasks. If they displeased their captors, they were beaten.

Later, a neighboring Mojave Chief, encouraged by his own daughters, purchased the girls and made them part of his family. As was their custom, the Mojaves tattooed Olive and her sister, on their chins, identifying them as members of the tribe. The tribe felt the tattoos were necessary for admittance into heaven. A misconception suggests the tattoos marked them as slaves, but that notion has been debunked, Nugent noted.

According to Olive’s own recounting years later, the tattoo was administered by “pricking into the skin in small regular rows with a very sharp stick until they bled freely,” she said. “The sticks were then dipped in weed juice and blue stone powder, which was then applied to the pinpricks on the face.”

While the two Oatman sisters were living with the Mojave, the tribe endured one of the area’s periodic famines, which claimed Mary Anne’s life. Olive survived the famine and seemed to assimilate into the tribe and found happiness, even taking on a Mojave name, Oach.

Despite the tribe’s efforts to keep the knowledge of Olive’s presence with them from American authorities, rumors began to circulate of a white woman living with the tribe. In 1856, authorities at Fort Yuma had enough evidence to demand Olive be returned to them. The commander at Fort Yuma sent a sympathetic Yuma tribe member working for the army to Mojave territory to bring Olive back. The story goes that she was apprehended near today’s Oatman, which is why the name has stuck.

She was soon reunited with her brother and reassimilated to American life, having forgotten a lot of English and about the culture itself. The two met a Methodist Minister, Royal B. Stanton, with whom they wrote a book about the Oatman family massacre and Olive’s experience in captivity. The book became popular and all of the royalties went to Lorenzo and Olive. In addition to the book, Olive went on a lecture circuit around the nation speaking about her experience. These two gigs became the brother and sister’s livelihood. However, there were inconsistencies in Olive’s accounts in her book and public lectures compared to what she retold in private. While in the public eye, she gave the harrowing accounts of the massacre and her abduction by the Yavapai, but in private she recounted her positive experiences with the Mojave, Nugent explained.

She met her husband, John B. Fairchild, a successful cattleman, while on the lecture circuit and after her marriage, settled down with him in Sherman, Texas. She did not have any children of her own but did have an adopted daughter. She was involved in charity work the rest of her life, including volunteering at a local orphanage. She died on March 20, 1903 of a heart attack at the age of 65.

This picture of a historic photo on display in a binder in the Oatman Jail shows the Big Jim Mining Company during its heyday (date unspecified), March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Mining operations

Gold was first discovered in the Oatman area in 1863 by a man named Johnny Moss. However, mining ventures were not developed until much later and Oatman was by no means the first mining center in its corner of Northwestern Arizona. First, there was the Snowball Mine, so named for the African-American prospector who discovered it. There were also the Vivian, Leland, and Boundary Cone mines (the road leading up to Oatman from the southwest is called Boundary Cone Road). The nearby mining community of Gold Road sprang up after an ex-Mexican army captain by the name of Jose Jerez found quartz, which sparkled with gold, while on a quest to find his burro which strayed away, Malach explained in his booklet. 

Oatman’s first great gold-producing mine was known as the Tom Reed mine, developed by Fred Eddy, who in 1904 was fortunate to run onto it because the two brothers (named Hilty) who discovered it could not afford to develop it. To secure his own funding to develop the claim, Eddy made a trip to his hometown of Pasadena, California, and formed the Pasadena Consolidated Company, in which many local businessmen bought stock. In 1906, the company was reorganized as the Tom Reed Gold Mining Company with headquarters still in Pasadena.

“As the mine was being developed, the ore continued to improve and the company’s stock climbed from 10 cents per share to a few dollars,” Malach noted. “In less than 10 years from the time Fred Eddy looked at the Hilty brothers’ claim, boom days came to the newly established town of Oatman. The Tom Reed and United Eastern mines brought thousands of people to Oatman.” 

In addition to those two mines, the Big Jim Mine was also a top producer. Later, it consolidated with United Eastern mine. All three of these mines were located on the same vein.

According to official records, the Oatman mining district produced over $36 million by 1931. The combined cost of production per ton of gold was approximately $8.25.

Outside of the top producing mines, mining operations in and around Oatman were by no means consolidated. 

“There were small and often completely independent mine camps within a few miles of Oatman,” Malach wrote. “Usually each camp had a bunkhouse, eating place and other facilities for the crew of workers who lived there all the time.”

Oatman during this time period continued to grow, as did the nearby communities of Mazona, Old Trails and Gold Road. By 1916, it was estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 people resided in the mining district. Many different mining companies formed and each one of them started to promote its own townsite, offering lots on the open market with many of those lots located on unpatented mining claims.

Life was hard for many incoming miners and their families at first. Malach recounted the experience of Clarabelle Decker, who described her upbringing in Oatman, arriving in 1909:

This picture of a historic photo on display in a binder in the Oatman Jail shows a tent city near Oatman, Arizona in 1915. March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

“We lived in two large connected tent-houses, which had corrugated tin roofs one above the other,” Decker recounted. “We had no indoor plumbing, and water was carried in five-gallon cans, two on either side of a pack-saddle on a burro, from the mine across the highway … Food was kept cool in a homemade cooler covered with burlap … We bathed in the galvanized wash tubs by the kitchen stove. The boys gathered mesquite wood for the stove and kept a pile chopped beside the house. We younger children went barefoot much of the time.”

Eventually, the Decker family moved uptown to a nicer home with linoleum floors, throw rugs in the front room and bedroom and walls covered in green burlap, Decker noted.

Decker recounted that early on, there was no church in Oatman. Socials were held at the schoolhouse with the ladies of the town making ice cream and cakes for the occasion. Oatman had a large red-light district, which Decker said the kids in town knew not to enter. She said her father cashed his mine payroll checks at the only retail establishment in town at the time, the Lovin and Withers store. Later on, Oatman would see other stores and businesses, including a movie theater, bank and real estate offices.

School records show the great transiency of the community during this time.

“The names of school children were different in the school register each year with the usual notation: ‘moved away,’” Malach noted.

Oatman teachers were a transient bunch as well. Very rarely did a teacher stay for more than one school year.

“In 1924, operation of the Big Jim-United Eastern mines ceased, and the companies looked for other mining properties,” Malach explained. “It was assumed that the ore bodies in the two mines did not go deeper. A mine adjacent to Big Jim had been explored to greater depth, and an entirely new ore zone was found.”

In early 1933, after some rehabilitation, the Big Jim mine went into production again, leasing a mill with a 50-ton per day capacity just a half-mile from the mine’s main shaft with an aerial tramway. 

The outbreak of World War II closed the mines and they never reopened, being deemed non-essential to the war effort, one interpretive sign reads.

Even after the closure of the mines, Oatman continued its existence as a stop along Route 66 with travelers patronizing its service stations, restaurants and hotel. 

In his 1946 edition of “A Guide Book to Highway 66,” Jack Rittenhouse called Oatman “a mining boomtown whose day has passed” where the main street consisted of “many old shacks” as well as “boarded-up stores, plank sidewalks (and) old sidewalk awnings.”

Unfortunately, in 1951, a new section of Route 66 between Kingman and Topock bypassed Oatman. The day after the ribbon-cutting, six of the seven families who operated gas stations left town and other business owners soon followed, Malach wrote.

One of Oatman’s burro residents stands next to a mural, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The Oatman burros 

The ancestors of today’s lovable Oatman burros were important for use in the mines.

“The burro played a varied and extremely critical role in Oatman’s mining history,” says an interpretive sign about the burros along Oatman’s main thoroughfare. “(They) are extremely strong and sure-footed and carried everything the miners and prospectors needed, from gold ore, equipment, machinery parts, long steel cable and, of course, (their) owner.”

Some of these hardy men would go months without seeing another human being. The burros became loyal friends to some of these early prospectors and became someone to talk to, forming a relationship that was “strong and often so reciprocal that (the) relationship passed the bounds of simple friendship,” the sign explains.

Burros were also used inside the mines for hauling rock and ore.

“Outside the mines, burros were used for hauling water and supplies,” another interpretive sign along the street says. 

Though, the burros were useful in the mines, the “Oatman News” reported in July 1917 that they could be a nuisance as well:

“The citizens of Oatman, especially those who are compelled to work on night shifts and sleep in the mornings, have declared war on the pestilent burros, who seem to infest the camp in greater numbers than ever. These beasts have no owners, no homes, no regular hours. They destroy a great deal of property, knock over garbage cans in search of food, and constitute a menace to the health and prevent sleep.”

As the mines closed and people moved away, the burros were released into the surrounding hills. The descendants of these burros are what visitors see today.

The Gable-Lombard Suite in the old Oatman Hotel is the centerpiece of museum displays on the 2nd floor of the building, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Oatman and the movies

One of Oatman’s most prominent and recognizable buildings is the Oatman Hotel, which is not a hotel anymore but does feature a restaurant and bar on the ground floor and a museum and gift shop upstairs. Originally built in 1902, the two-story adobe structure suffered destruction by fire in 1921 but was rebuilt in 1924. Movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon at the Oatman Hotel in March 1939 after their marriage in nearby Kingman. The suite where they stayed on the second floor of the hotel is the major exhibit of the museum. The former lobby of the hotel is decorated with dollar bills signed by guests pasted on the walls and ceiling.

According to some, the hotel is also home to “Oatie the Ghost,” who is said to be the supernatural form of William Ray Flour, an Irish minder who died at the hotel after drinking too much alcohol. 

In addition to its brush with famous movie stars, three significant movies used Oatman as a filming location, including:

“Foxfire” (1955): Starring Jane Russell, Jeff Chandler and Dan Duryea, the film is loosely based on Anya Seton’s bestselling 1950 novel and is historically notable as the last American film shot in three-strip Technicolor. The film is the story of a New York socialite Amanda Lawrence, whose car breaks down in the Arizona desert and is picked up by a young mining engineer, Jonathan Darland, or “Dart.” Lawrence quickly falls in love with “Dart” and the two quickly marry. The couple then faces problems such as Amanda’s disapproving mother and a mining community where women are not welcome.

“Edge of Eternity” (1959): This film follows the adventures of Arizona Deputy Sheriff Les Martin as he is pressured by his community to solve a string of murders around a mining town near the Grand Canyon. Several scenes filmed near Oatman include high-speed car chases on the “harrowing and narrow primitive Sitgreaves Pass Highway” an interpretive plaque in town states.

This picture of a historic photo at the former “How the West Was Won” movie set shows how the set pieces, the Gold City Mines offices, looked in the actual movie itself, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

“How the West Was Won” (1962): This John Ford-directed film won four Academy Awards and boasted a star-studded cast that included John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Debbie Reynolds. Based on a Louis L’Amour novel, the film follows four generations of the Prescott family as they brave the challenges of the Old West between 1839 and 1889. Oatman was the backdrop of the last few minutes of the movie, where the MGM studio built a covered bridge for the “Gold City Mines” office weigh station and “dolled up the rest of the town with a mock saloon, corrals, mine shafts and a hotel,” a plaque next to the old set reads.

AMC’s series “Hell on Wheels” features the character Eva Toole, who is based on the real life of Olive Oatman, complete with a tattoo on her chin. 

Visiting Oatman

Oatman lies just under four hours southeast of St. George, only 27 miles from Bullhead City, Arizona.

In addition to its burros, its charm is in its old, western-themed buildings, kitschy souvenir shops and old-fashioned boardwalks. The best places to see relics of Oatman’s past are the Oatman Jail Museum, the outdoor mining museum and the second floor of the old Oatman Hotel. 

Oatman treats visitors to two daily staged shootouts, which take place right outside the Oatman Hotel, Oatman, Arizona, March 10, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Despite the mining and old-west lore, the burros are the town’s mainstay and they have really left their mark in the form of excrement embedded into the pavement of this former portion of historic Route 66. They also seem to never be in a hurry, causing those passing through Oatman to not be in a hurry either since motorists must often drive through downtown Oatman at a snail’s pace (or stop completely at times) to allow time for the burros to move out of the way.

Visitors can buy a bag of food for the burros for $1 at many of the town’s shops.  These businesses kindly ask, however, that visitors don’t feed these “asses” on their establishment’s front porches. 

“The burros you meet today in Oatman, while descendants of the domestic work animals, are themselves wild – they will bite and kick,” one of the interpretive signs along Oatman’s main street reads. “Please keep a safe distance from them. Wild burros are protected by federal law from capture, injury or harassment.” 

There are no operating hotels in Oatman. Visitors must find accommodations in nearby cities such as Kingman and Bullhead City, Arizona or Needles, California.

For more information on Oatman, visit the Oatman Chamber of Commerce website

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.


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