The story of Olive Oatman. Version 1

Olive Oatman in 1857

Born: 1837, Olive Ann Oatman

Died: March 20, 1903

Cause of death: Heart attack

Resting place: West Hill Cemetery

Nationality: American

Citizenship: United States

Spouse(s): John Brant Fairchild (1865-1903)

Parents: Royce Oatman, Mary Ann Oatman

Relatives: Lorenzo (brother), Mary Ann (sister), Royce Oatman, Jr. (brother), Charity Ann (sister), Lucy (sister), Roland (brother)

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), who captured and enslaved her and her sister and later sold them to the Mohave people.[1] After several years with the Mohave, during which her sister died of hunger, she returned to the white world, 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 Indians remains unknown. [2]


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Oatman Massacre
  • 3 Abduction and captivity
  • 4 Later life
  • 5 Death and legacy
  • 6 References
  • 7 Further reading
  • 8 External links

Early life

Born into the family of Royce and Mary Ann Oatman, Oatman was one of seven siblings. She grew up in the Mormon religion.

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, with Brewster following the northern route. Royce Oatman and several other families chose the southern route via Socorro, Santa Cruz, and Tucson. Near Socorro, Royce Oatman assumed command of the party. They reached New Mexico 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.

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.

Oatman Massacre

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."[3] 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 Arizona pioneer Charles Poston.[4]

Abduction and captivity

Olive (left) and Mary Oatman, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, 1857

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)[5] 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, but some of her actions cast doubt on this assertion. For example, she did not attempt to contact a large group of whites that visited the Mohaves during her period with them,[6] and years later she went to meet with a Mohave leader in New York City and spoke with him of old times.[7]

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 tattood 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.[8]

During a drought in the region (probably in 1855, according to climate records),[9] 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.

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.[10][11]

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".

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.

Later life

In 1857, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton wrote a book about Olive and Mary Ann titled Life Among the Indians.[12] 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.[13]

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.

Death and legacy

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.[14]

The town of Oatman, Arizona, a ghost town renewed by tourists from a nearby gambling town, is named in her honor.[15]


1.     Braatz, Timothy (2003). Surviving Conquest. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 253–4. 

2.     Mifflin, Margot. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. 2009, pages 146-51

3.     The Tucson Citizen, September 26, 1913

4.     Oatman Family Genealogy

5.     Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, page 85

6.     Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, page 102

7.     Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, pages 176-177

8.     Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, pages 96-99

9.     Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, page 105

10.   Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004, page 152

11.   Richard H. Dillon. Tragedy at Oatman Flat: Massacre, Captivity, Mystery. American West 18, no. 2 (1981), pages 46-59

12.   "Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild". Find A Grave. Retrieved August 10, 2012. 

13.   "Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman". Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved August 10, 2012. 

14.   "Profile for Oatman, Arizona, AZ". ePodunk. Retrieved August 11, 2012. 

Further reading

  • Leo Banks, Stalwart Women: Frontier Stories of Indomitable Spirit (ISBN 0-916179-77-X)
  • Brian McGinty, The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival (ISBN 0-8061-3667-7)
  • Margot Mifflin, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (ISBN 978-0-8032-1148-3)
  • "Oatman Cookbook, History and Ghost Stories" - Written by the residents of modern day Oatman.

External links

Biography portal

  • Tintype portraits of Olive Oatman and Lorenzo D. Oatman held in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.
  • Texas State Historical Association
© Aleksandra Jarosz Laszlo 2020