The ribbon of Sonoran Desert between Gila Bend and Yuma is quiet and endlessly brown.
But over 160 years ago you might have heard the scrape of wagon wheels against rock or seen the white flash of wagon canvas on the horizon. Back then, this was another country—still Mexico, before the Gadsden Purchase. This stretch of land houses all that’s left of some lesser-known footnotes in Latter-day history: the ruts of the trail traveled by the Mormon Battalion, and the remains of an ill-fated trek by an early Mormon schismatic sect. Both sites make an interesting day trip from the Valley.
The Mormon Battalion Trail
Dubbed the longest infantry march in history, the Mormon Battalion covered nearly 2000 miles from Iowa to San Diego over the years 1846-1847. During the Mexican-American War, President Polk authorized the enlistment of a company to make up a California-bound overland army. In a politically practical move, nearly 500 Mormons volunteered. The scrappy unit never fought a battle; instead, the battalion ended up building roads key to 19th century westward expansion.
Their route cuts through southern Arizona, following the Gila River as it runs west. Several commemorations dot the landscape in the area, including a plaque and interpretive marker at the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site and an old wooden signpost atop the bluff at Oatman Flat. Wagon ruts and wear are visible there.
The Oatman Massacre Site
In 1850, Mormon dissident Roys Oatman took his family and headed west with a splinter group called the Brewsterites, one of many that had sprung up in the wake of the martyrdom. They weren’t headed to Salt Lake. Instead, the fledgling congregants were bound for the mythical “Land of Bashan,” a fertile valley they thought they’d find at the juncture of the Gila and Colorado Rivers.
The Oatman family never made it that far.
Alone and running out of provisions, Roys, his pregnant wife and their seven children found themselves down to one wagon as they crossed a barren expanse of the Gila Trail nearly a year into their journey.
In this exhausted state, a band of Native Americans (possibly Yavapai) ambushed them on February 18, 1851. Roys, his wife, and four of his children were killed immediately, their bodies strewn across a rocky outcrop. A son was left for dead; two daughters, Mary Ann and Olive, were taken captive and later traded to a sympathetic Mohave tribe. Mary Ann starved in the desert, but five years after the massacre of her family, Olive was reunited with her brother. Marked by her adoptive tribe, Olive would bear their striking blue facial tattoos for the rest of her life.
A DAR memorial plaque to the Oatmans can be found at Oatman Flat on the south bank of the Gila. Atop the bluff at the ambush site lie the scattered graves of the family.
The Oatman sites and trail marker for the Mormon Battalion are a short distance off I-8 west of Gila Bend near the BLM Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. GPS coordinates and directions to the Oatman memorial, trail marker and gravesite can be found online, but it is best to stop at one of the farms or campgrounds in the area and check with a local or a camp host for specifics, since roads are unmarked and landmarks are few. High clearance vehicles are suggested, and the trip is best made in cool, dry weather. Wear sturdy shoes, bring water, and be prepared to hike through the (usually) dry Gila River and up a small bluff.