In the dry & windy (yeah, both breezy-windy and curvy-windy!!) hills of western Arizona is an interesting town with wild burros that wander into store fronts looking for food, and nurse their offspring at the front of your car. They’ll pee on your foot if you aren’t paying attention (nearly happened to me) ’cause they do as they pretty much like. And boy, is that urine ever wickedly potent!!! But burros in Oatman is what brings all the tourists out here, and I must say….they are really cute, especially the little ones with stickers on their foreheads saying “Don’t feed me”. Their mommas have all that they need!
Burros are the big drawing card to the little town of Oatman along historic Route 66.
These creatures first came to Oatman with early-day prospectors from The Bay Area. Being sure-footed creatures they were invaluable to their owner. Inside the mines burros were used for hauling rock and ore. Outside the mines they hauled water and supplies. Over time, as the mines closed & people moved away the burros were released into the surrounding hills to fend for themselves.
And so they did fend for themselves. Interestingly, burros can smell water from 20 miles away. Gestation is an eleven month event for them. Average life span is 30-35 years. The burros you meet today in Oatman, while descended of domestic work animals, are themselves wild—they WILL bite and kick.
The Ghost Town That Won’t Die
Oatman was founded around the year 1806 though that wasn’t its actual name until 1909. This was Blue Ridge camp.
Mines in the area had produced over 1.8 million ounces of gold by 1831. World War I was partially funded by gold that came from these mountains in 1912. Oatman boomed in the 1910’s and 20’s: there were upwards of 3,500 who lived here…currently its about 125 people. Men were needed to mine copper elsewhere for World War II and in 1942 the last remaining mines were closed as ‘non-essentials’ to the war effort. But that wasn’t this towns last breath.
The turn-of-the-century gold mining camp was on the original road through the Black Mountains. That eventually became part of the historic Route 66, the 2,400 mile highway connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. Route 66 helped keep life in the town, though it was never big like its boom years.
Then in 1990 Gold Road Mine reopened. Life again! Until the prices for gold dropped in 1999. The mine was closed.
Gasp!!! They were reopened again in 2010.
Olive was one of seven children of Royse and Mary Ann Oatman. Olive was born in Illinois in either 1837 or 39. In 1850 the family joined a wagon train headed for the Colorado River, a portion which is now part of southern California.
The wagon train split several times during the journey, and the Oatman family of 9 was left to travel west alone. On Feb 18, 1851 the family was attacked by Apache on the Gila River in Arizona. Most of the family was massacred: brother Lorenzo was left for dead; Olive and sister Mary were taken captive.
For years the girls were kept as slaves at a village near present day Congress, AZ. After a march of hundreds of miles, they were then sold to a Mojave chief near Needles.
Mary and Olive were tattooed on their chins with indelible blue cactus ‘ink’ so they would be easily & always recognized as slaves. They were forced to forage for their food; inevitable drought (and abuse) brought Mary’s death.
Of course Olive feared for her life. The Mojave’s threatened her life any time whites were near by, or when the tribe went to war. She was also forced to watch the torture of other captives.
In the winter of 1855-56, the US army located her and began negotiations for her release. On Feb 28, 1856 for the price of a horse, blankets and some beads, Olive was ransomed at Fort Yuma, AZ. Wearing just a bark skirt and able to speak only a few English words, she was reunited with her brother Lorenzo.
There’s much more to this amazing story. Olive Oatman Fairchild died in 1903, nearly 50 years after her freedom.
If you’re ever out in the dry hills of western Arizona there isn’t a whole lot around, and yet people still flock to Oatman. The history and the industrious locals (with the help of those cute burros) keep attracting enough tourists to keep businesses going. There’s saloons and restaurants, gift shops, candy stores and art galleries. Its like walking through a living museum…well worth a detour (if you aren’t already driving Route 66) to check the town and go wandering with the burros in Oatman Arizona.
PS Wild burros are protected by Federal Law from capture, injury, or harassment. But you can feed them! Some stores in Oatman will sell you feed. Or just bring some along. While we were there somebody arrived with a sack full of carrots for the burros.
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