Childhood & Early Life
Olive Ann Oatman was born to Roys and Mary Ann Oatman on September 7, 1837. She had six siblings. Her family followed the Mormon religion.
The Oatman family rebelled against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1850. They decided to join the rebel leader, James C. Brewster, on the train to Colorado River, which was the place meant for the gathering of the Mormons.
A disagreement amongst the rebels near Santa Fe in the New Mexico territory led them to split. Brewster and his group took the northern route while Roys Oatman led the other families to Socorro and over to Tucson.
When they reached Maricopa Wells, they were warned by the locals about the dangerous southwestern trail and the brutality of the natives against the whites. The other families decided to end the journey there and not risk moving ahead. Roys, however, headed further along with his wife and seven children.
The Oatman family then encountered a Native American tribe believed to be the Yavapais, who mercilessly attacked the family. Most of the family members were killed. The tribe kidnapped Olive, aged 14 years, and her sister Mary Ann, aged seven years. Their brother, Lorenzo, was brutally clubbed and left for dead.
Lorenzo was later rescued by the Mormon group and taken to the place of attack where they found only six bodies as Olive and Mary Ann were missing.
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After collecting valuables from the Oatmans, the Native Americans took the two girls to a village located in the Harquahala Mountains. Olive and her sister were used as slaves and were made to do domestic tasks. They were ill-treated and often beaten up.
After a year or so, a group of Mohave Indians came in contact with the natives and offered to buy the two slave girls from them. They had to give up two horses, vegetables, blankets, and other trinkets in exchange of the girls.
The girls had to traverse a long way to reach the Mohave village which was situated along the Colorado River. Olive and Mary Ann were handed over to the tribe leader Espianola’s family.
Olive often stated that Espianola’s wife, Aespaneo, and her daughter Topeka grew very fond of the sisters and treated them much better than their previous captors. Aespaneo even allotted the girls plots of land where they could practice farming.
The Mohave tribe then marked the faces of the two girls with permanent blue cactus ink tattoos as a part of their tribal tradition. The tattoos consisted of five lines running from the lower lip to the chin and two horizontal lines stretching to the left and the right cheek, respectively. The tribe believed that the tattoos ensured a good afterlife.
When held captive by the Mohaves, Olive and her sister did not attempt to contact the whites who had visited the tribe. Olive believed that her entire family was dead and that there was no one to go back to in the white community.
In 1855, the tribe was hit badly by drought which led to severe shortage of food. Barely eleven years old, Mary Ann died of starvation. However, Olive managed to survive because her adoptive mother Aespaneo saw to it that she was decently fed.
Her brother Lorenzo was still looking out for his sisters with the help of the US army. In around 1855-56, they received news about a white girl living amongst the Mohave tribe.
Francisco, a Yuma Indian messenger, then visited the Mohaves in search of a white girl living amongst them. The Mohave did everything from dyeing Olive’s skin to threatening her from speaking in English to the messenger to keep her from leaving. However, Olive disregarded their orders and spoke in broken English to Francisco, who then urged them to return Olive or face destruction at the hands of the whites.
The Mohaves agreed to give up Olive in exchange of a white horse and a few blankets. Before making her way to Fort Yuma, Olive was given clothes to cover her upper body that was bare owing to the Mohaves’ custom of donning only a traditional skirt.
Olive was then reunited with her brother Lorenzo who she believed to be dead after the attack. This sibling reunion became big news for newspapers throughout the West.
An account of Olive’s captive life was recorded in a biography penned by Reverend Royal Stratton under the title ‘Life Among the Indians: Captivity of the Oatman Girls’. The book went on to sell thousands of copies and became a best-selling work of its time.
Olive and Lorenzo moved to New York with Stratton where she held lectures to promote the book. However, there were a lot of discrepancies in Olive’s account of her time spent in captivity.
She stated that during her time as a slave, she was never sexually abused by either of the tribes. However, at times, she contradicted her own statements. She referred to her captors as ‘savages’ but also spoke fondly of them, especially her foster family. It is likely that she must have suffered from Stockholm syndrome.
Family & Personal Life
Olive married a rich rancher named John B. Fairchild in November 1865. The couple adopted a baby girl and named her Mamie.
She died after suffering a heart attack on March 20, 1903. She was aged 65 at the time of her death. She was buried with her husband at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.
The town of Oatman in Arizona is named after her.