Tintype portraits of Olive Oatman & Lorenzo D. Oatman, 1857
Olive Oatman (1837 – March 20, 1903) was a woman from Illinois whose family was killed in 1851, when she was fourteen, in today’s Arizona by a Native American tribe, possibly the Tolkepayas (Western Yavapai); they captured and enslaved her and her sister and later sold them to the Mohave people. After several years with the Mohave, during which her sister died of hunger, she returned to American society, five years after being carried off.
In subsequent years, the tale of Oatman came to be retold with dramatic license in the press, in her own “memoir” and speeches, novels, plays, movies and poetry. The story resonated in the media of the time and long afterward, partly owing to the prominent blue tattooing of Oatman’s face by the Mohave. Much of what exactly occurred to her during her time with the Native Americans remains unknown.
In 1850, the Oatman family joined a wagon train led by James C. Brewster, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), whose attacks on, and disagreements with, the church leadership in Salt Lake City, Utah, had caused him to break with the followers of Brigham Young in Utah and lead his followers — Brewsterites — to California, which he claimed was the “intended place of gathering” for the Mormons.
The Brewsterite emigrants, numbering between 85 and 93, left Independence, Missouri on August 5, 1850. Dissension caused the group to split near Santa Fe in New Mexico Territory with Brewster following the northern route. Royce Oatman and several other families chose the southern route via Socorro and Tucson. Near Socorro, Royce Oatman assumed command of the party. They reached New Mexico Territory early in 1851 only to find the country and climate wholly unsuited to their purpose. The other wagons gradually abandoned the goal of reaching the mouth of the Colorado River.
The party had reached Maricopa Wells, when they were told that not only was the stretch of trail ahead barren and dangerous, but that the Indians ahead were very hostile and that they would risk their lives if they proceeded further. The other families resolved to stay. The Oatman family, eventually traveling alone, was nearly annihilated in what became known as the “Oatman Massacre” on the banks of the Gila River about 80–90 miles east of Yuma, in what is now Arizona.
Royce and Mary had seven children at this time, ranging in age from 17 to one year. On their fourth day out, they were approached by a group of Native Americans, asking for tobacco, food and rifles. At some point during the encounter, the Oatman family was attacked by the group, and all were killed except Lorenzo, age 15, who was clubbed and left for dead; Olive, age 14; and Mary Ann, age 7.
Lorenzo awoke to find his parents and family dead, but no sign of Mary Ann and Olive. He eventually reached a settlement where he was treated. Three days later, Lorenzo, who had rejoined the emigrant train, found the bodies of his slain family; “we buried the bodies of father, mother and babe in one common grave.” The men had no way of digging proper graves in the volcanic rocky soil, so they gathered the bodies together and formed a cairn over them. It has been said the remains were reburied several times and finally moved to the river for reinterment by early Arizona colonizer Charles Poston.
Once the attack was complete, the Indians took some of the Oatmans’ belongings along with the Oatman girls. Although Olive later identified her captors as Tonto Apaches, they were probably Tolkepayas (Western Yavapais) living in a village 60–100 miles from the site of the attack. After arriving at the village, the girls were initially treated in a way that appeared threatening, and Olive later said she thought they would be killed. However, the girls were used as slaves, to forage for food, lug water and firewood, and other menial tasks; they were frequently beaten and mistreated.
After a year, a group of Mohave Indians visited the village and traded two horses, vegetables, blankets, and other trinkets for the captive girls, after which the girls walked for days to a Mohave village at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers (in what today is Needles, California). They were immediately taken in by the family of a tribal leader (kohot) whose non-Mohave name was Espianola or Espanesay. The Mohave tribe was more prosperous than the group that had held the girls captive, and both Espanesay’s wife Aespaneo and daughter Topeka took an interest in the Oatman girls’ welfare. Olive expressed her deep affection for these two women numerous times over the years after her captivity.
Aespaneo arranged for the Oatman girls to be given plots of land to farm. Whether Olive and Mary Ann were truly adopted into that family and the Mohave people is unknown. She later claimed that she and Mary Ann were captives of the Mohave and that she feared to leave. She did not attempt to contact a large group of whites that visited the Mohaves during her period with them, and years later she went to meet with a Mohave leader, Irataba, in New York City and spoke with him of old times.
Both Oatman girls were tattooed on their chins and arms in keeping with the tribal custom for those who were tribal members. Olive later claimed (in Stratton’s book and in her lectures) that she was tattooed to mark her as a slave of the Mohaves, but this is inconsistent with the Mohave tradition in which such marks were given only to their own people to ensure that they would have a good afterlife.
During a drought in the region (probably in 1855, according to climate records), the tribe experienced a dire shortage of food supplies and Mary Ann died of starvation, at the age of ten or eleven, along with many Mohaves.
While Oatman sometimes spoke with fondness of the Mohaves, whose treatment of her was superior to the treatment she’d received when first captured, Oatman became less positive about her experience over time, as she may have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome.
When Olive Oatman was 19 years old, Francisco, a Yuma Indian messenger arrived at the village with a message from the authorities at Fort Yuma. Rumors suggested that a white girl was living with the Mohaves and the post commander requested her return (or to know the reason why she did not choose to return). The Mohaves initially sequestered Olive and resisted the request. At first they denied that Olive was even white; others over the course of negotiations expressed their affection for Olive, others their fear of reprisal from whites. Francisco, meanwhile, withdrew to the homes of other nearby Mohaves; shortly thereafter he made a second fervent attempt to persuade the Mohaves to part with Olive. Trade items were included this time, including blankets and a white horse, and he passed on threats that the whites would destroy the Mohaves if they did not release Olive.
After some discussion, in which Olive was this time included, the Mohaves decided to accept these terms, and Olive was escorted to Fort Yuma in a 20-day journey. Topeka (the daughter of Espianola/Espanesay and Aespaneo) went on the journey with Olive. Before entering the fort, Olive insisted she be given proper clothing, as she was clad in a traditional Mohave skirt with no covering above her waist. Inside the fort, Olive was surrounded by cheering people.
Olive’s childhood friend Susan Thompson, whom she befriended again at this time, stated many years later that she believed Olive was “grieving” upon her return, because she had been married to a Mohave and given birth to two boys.
Olive herself, however, denied rumors during her lifetime that she had been either married to a Mohave or was ever raped or sexually mistreated by the Yavapai or Mohave. In Stratton’s book she declared that “to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me”. However among the Mojave only the married women had the blue chin tattoos that she received.
Within a few days of her arrival at the fort, Olive discovered her brother Lorenzo was alive and had been looking for her and her sister. Their meeting made headline news across the West.
In 1857, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton wrote a book about Olive and Mary Ann titled Life Among the Indians. The book sold 30,000 copies, a best-seller for that era. Royalties from the book paid for Lorenzo and Olive’s college education at the University of the Pacific. Olive went on the lecture circuit to help promote the book.
In November 1865, Olive married cattleman John B. Fairchild. Though it was rumored that she died in an asylum in New York in 1877, she actually went to live with Fairchild in Sherman, Texas, where they adopted a baby girl, Mamie.
Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903, at the age of 65. She is buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas. The town of Oatman, Arizona, a ghost town renewed by tourists from a nearby gambling town, is named in her honor.
In 1965, the actress Shary Marshall played Oatman, with Tim McIntire as her brother, Lorenz, and Ronald W. Reagan as Lieutenant Colonel Burke, in “The Lawless Have Laws” episode of the syndicated western television series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Reagan near the end of his acting career. In the storyline, Burke leads Lorenz in a search for his sister, whom he has not seen in five years since an Indian raid on their family.
The character of Eva portrayed by Robin McLeavy in the AMC television series Hell on Wheels is very loosely based on Olive Oatman, but outside of being captured by a group of Indians and bearing the distinctive blue chin tattoo there are very few similarities between the character of Eva and the actual life of Olive Oatman.
FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN (1839–1903). Indian captive, lecturer, and early-day resident of Sherman, Texas, was born in La Harpe, Hancock County, Illinois on September 7, 1837, the second daughter of Roys (often erroneously spelled Royce, Royse, or Rois) Oatman and his wife Mary Ann (Sperry) Oatman. The Oatman family gave up their Methodist faith in about 1839 to become followers of Joseph Smith, founder of the religious group called Mormons but officially designated as the “Latter-day Saints” or “Saints of the Latter Days” (now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Following Smith’s death at the hands of a mob in 1844, the Oatmans rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and joined a dissident group of Mormons led by a self-designated “seer and revelator” named James Colin Brewster. Brewster had received revelations that the true “gathering place” of the Mormons was to be at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers (now located on the border between Arizona and California) in what he identified as the “Land of Bashan.”.Leaving Illinois, the Oatmans joined a wagon train of Brewsterites that left Independence, Missouri, in August, 1850, and headed for the “Land of Bashan.” Roys Oatman proved to be a difficult and quarrelsome traveling partner, so other members of the train gradually separated themselves from him and his family as they made their way along the Santa Fé Trail through Kansas and New Mexico, the northern reaches of the Mexican State of Sonora, and what would soon (through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853) become southern Arizona.
On February 18, 1851, Roys Oatman, his pregnant wife Mary Ann, and their seven children found themselves alone atop a rocky mesa on the south bank of the Gila River, where they encountered a band of about nineteen Indians traveling on foot. Often misidentified as Apaches, the Indians were almost certainly Western Yavapais, or Tolkepayas, who were suffering hunger as the result of a severe drought and famine that had beset the southwestern deserts. After giving the Indians some bread, Roys Oatman refused their demand for more food. Angered, the Indians attacked the Oatmans with clubs, killing all members of the family except thirteen-year-old Olive, her eight-year-old sister Mary Ann, and her fourteen-year-old brother, Lorenzo. They ransacked the wagon, looted the fallen bodies, and stole the oxen that had been pulling the wagon. Badly bloodied and left for dead, Lorenzo was able to make it back to other members of the Brewsterite train and tell them what had happened, while Olive and Mary Ann were captured and taken through the mountains to a Tolkepaya village. They were held there for about a year, after which they were traded to the Mohaves, who occupied a valley to the northwest along the Colorado River between California and Arizona.
While with the Mohaves, Olive and Mary Ann lived in the home of one of the tribal leaders (probably a kohot or festival chief). Believing that all of their Oatman family members had been killed and that they would never return to the world of the whites, they learned the Mohave language, dressed in the Mohave style, and adopted Mohave habits. Their chins and arms were tattooed. Although the tattoos were later characterized as slave marks, they were in fact evidence of the girls’ acceptance into the world of the Mohaves, who bore similar tattoos. Mary Ann died of starvation during a drought that struck the Mohave Valley in 1855. Olive may have given birth to one or more half-Mohave children during the four years she lived with the Mohaves, although evidence on the question is unclear and subject to scholarly dispute.
Recovering from the wounds he suffered in the massacre, Lorenzo Oatman went to California, where he sought to learn the whereabouts of his sisters. His efforts bore fruit early in 1856, when Olive’s residence in the Mohave Valley was discovered and she was brought south to Fort Yuma, a U.S. military establishment at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado. Reunited with Lorenzo, Olive went on to California and eventually into southern Oregon, where she lived with Oatman cousins and she and Lorenzo met Royal Byron Stratton, a Methodist minister. Stratton wrote a sensationalized book about the massacre of the Oatman family and Olive’s life with the Indians. The book titled, Life Among the Indians, but later retitled Captivity of the Oatman Girls, was crafted as an Indian captivity narrative, a literary form that was common in American history. Initially published in San Francisco in 1857, the book misidentified the capturing Indians as Apaches and included long tracts of fervid and largely fictional anti-Indian prose. It quickly became a runaway best-seller and was reprinted in both San Francisco and New York.
Moving to New York, Olive went on the lecture circuit, where for several years she addressed audiences about her experiences among the Indians. The tattoos on her arms were concealed with the long sleeves of her dresses, although the marks on her chin aroused excitement and curiosity. She was on the lecture circuit in Farmington, Michigan, in 1864, when she met John Brant Fairchild, a New York-born cattleman and farmer, whom she married in Rochester, New York, in 1865.
After her marriage, she gave up all of her lecture activities, while Fairchild attempted to find copies of Stratton’s book and destroy them. Olive and her husband moved to Sherman, Texas, in 1872, where they adopted a baby girl named Mary Elizabeth (called Mamie) and moved into a handsome two-story house. Although Olive was a respected member of the Sherman community and Fairchild was one of its most prominent businessmen, she was clearly troubled. She rarely left her home and, when she did, attempted to cover her chin tattoo with veils and face powders. She left Sherman periodically to seek treatment for physical and nervous ailments, even going as far away as Canada. Letters found after her death bore evidence to the psychological scars she had suffered in her early years. Often ascribed to mistreatment by the Indians, her emotional problems were just as likely due to the loss of her family members and the bittersweet memories she left behind in the Mohave Valley. Olive died in Sherman on March 21, 1903, at the age of sixty-five. John Brant Fairchild died four years later, on April 25, 1907. Both were interred in an elaborate grave Fairchild had prepared in Sherman’s West Hill Cemetery. A Texas historical marker was placed there in 1969. In November of 2011 the AMC Network series Hell on Wheels included a character, Eva Toole, who shared many traits with Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild.
Brian McGinty, The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006). Denison Daily Herald, April 25, 1907. New York Times, May 4, 1858. Howard H. Peckham, Captured by Indians: True Tales of Pioneer Survivors (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1954). Edward J. Pettid, “The Oatman Story,” Arizona Highways, November 1968.
Via Hell on Wheels:
In 1851, the Oatmans — a pioneer family from Illinois — embarked to California in search of gold and a Mormon paradise. Tragedy struck when they encountered some Yavapai Indians at the Gila River in present-day Arizona. The Yavapais attacked the family with clubs and knives then ransacked their supplies. Olive Oatman, 14, and her sister Mary Ann were spared as the rest were left to die. “I distinguished the groans of my poor mother,” Olive later wrote. Lorenzo, 15, also survived, despite a bloody blow to his head.
The Yavapais enslaved Olive and Mary Ann for a year — they “took unwarranted delight in whipping us on beyond our strength,” Olive wrote — but eventually traded the girls to the Mohave Indians for two horses, three blankets, vegetables and beads. Life with the Mohaves was a major improvement. They treated Olive as one of their own, bestowing her with Mohave names like “Aliutman,” “Olivino” and “Spantsa.” (Though Olive never admitted to it, historians believe she was sexually involved with tribe members.)
During her four years as a Mohave initiate, Olive received a blue chin tattoo — Mohaves considered tattoos to be a form of I.D. in the afterlife. “[They] pricked the skin in small regular rows on our chins with a very sharp stick, until they bled freely,” Olive wrote. The sticks were then dipped in weed juice and blue stone powder which was then applied to the pinpricks on the face.
Olive seemed content with her new life, so when authorities from Fort Yuma, CA, finally tracked her down and negotiated a trade with the Mohaves, Olive cried — as did her adopted family. (Mary Ann had already died from illness.) When Olive arrived at Fort Yuma, she became an instant celebrity. Newspapers around the country called her a hero and a victim — the Los Angeles Star described her as “a pretty girl” who’d been “disfigured by tattooed lines on the chin.” In ensuing years, Olive talked to packed houses about her experiences. Her account of her captivity grew increasingly negative toward the Mohaves, which leads some to believe that she may have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome — a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors.
In the 1880s, the “tattooed captive” became a popular circus theme. “Their stories turned, provocatively, on the notion that people of color could transform whites into people of color,” Margot Mifflin writes in The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Olive eventually married a rancher and moved to Texas. She died of a heart attack in 1903.
Her house in Sherman, Texas where she lived for 30 years.