Olive Oatman & the Mohave Tribe

Poppy Mae
Poppy Mae
Dec 7, 2017 · 6 min read

Olive Ann Oatman was born in 1837 in Illinois, the mid-western region of the United States. One of seven siblings, Olive was born into a Mormon family, the daughter of Royce Oatman and Mary Ann Oatman.

Missouri to Colorado River

In 1850, when Olive was 14 years old, her family joined a wagon train to travel to California, led by James C. Brewster, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Followers of Brewster were dubbed ‘Brewsterites’, and approximately 90 Brewsterites left Independence, Missouri on August 5th, bound for the Colorado River now in Southern California — a place which James Brewster claimed was “the intended place of gathering” for the Mormons.

Disagreements amongst the group cause the travellers to split near Santa Fe in New Mexico Territory. James Brewster chose to follow the northern route, whereas the Oatman family and several others chose the southern route via Socorro and Tucson.

The idea of reaching the mouth of the Colorado River was abandoned once the group of families dawned near Socorro. Reaching New Mexico Territory early in 1851, they found the terrain and climate of the area was not what they were expecting.

Royce Oatman was determined to find a place where he could build a life for his wife and seven children. When the group reached Maricopa Wells, it became apparent that the trail ahead was laborious and gruelling. Many were afraid of hostility from the Indians who occupied the land. Undeterred, Royce Oatman led his family solo. On the fourth day, Native Americans approached them, asking for food, tobacco and guns.

The Oatman massacre

February 18th would be the last day the family were all together, alive. The group who approached the Oatman family — Yavapi tribesman — attacked them on the banks of the Gila River, a location east of what is now known as Yuma, Arizona. Olive’s parents, Royce and Mary, along with four of her siblings, were killed at the scene. Remarkably, Olive’s brother Lorenzo survived with serious injuries, enough to knock him unconscious for an unrecorded length of time.

When Lorenzo came round, he found that his sisters, Olive and Mary Ann, were missing. Lorenzo managed to reach a nearby settlement to be treated for his wounds and continued on to find the bodies of his parents and siblings some three days later.

The site of the Oatman massacre, 102 miles southwest of Phoenix.

Yavapai enslavement

Whilst it could have been assumed that Olive and her younger sister Mary Ann were murdered too, they were in-fact captured by the Yavapai tribesmen and held at a village near Congress, Arizona. Rather than be killed, Olive and Mary Ann were brought in as slaves, used to forage food, carry water and firewood. Olive and Mary Ann were beaten and mistreated but kept alive to complete these menial duties.

After 12 months of serving as Yavapai slaves, the Oatman sisters were seemingly saved by an unlikely set of heroes — the Mohave Indians. The Mohave tribe visited the Yavapai village and subsequently traded two horses, blankets and miscellaneous trinkets in exchange for Olive and Mary Ann.

The walk was several hundred miles, but, eventually, the Oatman sisters reached their new home: a Mojave village that was situated near what is now Needles, California.

Mohave tribe

The Mohave tribal leader, Espianola, adopted Mary Ann and Olive, integrating them into his family. In her later life, Olive referenced Espianola’s wife, Asepaneo and daughter, Topeka, for treating both her and her sister well, giving them plots of land to farm.

Olive’s time with the Mohave tribe is dubious. To what extend Olive and Mary Ann were adopted into the tribe is up for debate, as Olive has claimed before that both she and Mary Ann were captives, living in fear. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, as years later, Olive freely chose to meet up with a Mohave leader in New York City.

Tribal tattooing

The Mohave tribe welcomed Olive and Mary Ann into their culture by tattooing their chins, a Mohave tradition. The girls both had their chins tattooed with five vertical lines from the lips to the chin, with two triangles on either side.

The tattoo was a series of short and long bars in blue ink and was done to ensure the bearer a good afterlife. Without the tattoo, there would be no passage into the afterlife. Later on, Olive claims that the chin tattoos were inflicted onto slaves, so they could be identified should they ever escape the tribe. This statement is far from the truth, as only those accepted and cared for by the tribe would bear a symbol that was believed to give them a peaceful afterlife.

Reunion with Lorenzo

Lorenzo Oatman was still searching for his missing sisters, unaware that his younger sister, Mary Ann, had died in 1855 from starvation after the tribe experience a severe drought.

A depiction of Mary Ann’s death in the Mojave village.

During the winter of 1855–56, the United States Army received a tip that Olive was still living amongst the Mohave tribe. At 19, a Yuma Indian messenger arrived at the Mohave village with a message from the authorities at Fort Yuma, located in Imperial County, California. The message explained that rumours were circulating that a white girl was living with the Mohave tribe and that the post commander requested her return.

Initially, the Mohave tribe resisted the request, even stating that Olive wasn’t white. This is thought to be done out of their affection for Olive, maintaining that she was part of the Mohave family. The messenger, Francisco, made another feeble attempt to ween Olive from the Mohave tribe, offering blankets and horses in exchange for her. Eventually, Francisco resulted to threats — claiming that white people would destroy the Mohave tribe if they didn’t part with Olive.

On February 28th, 1856, Olive was ransomed and escorted to Fort Yuma. The daughter of Mohave tribal leader, Topeka, escorted Olive on the journey. The reunion between Olive and her brother Lorenzo, who she did not know was still alive, made headlines across the West.

Life in white society

In 1858, Olive moved to New York, going on to lecture and promote a book that depicted her life story, Life Among the Indians: Captivity of the Oatman Girls. Olive rarely appeared in public without a veil to cover her tattooed chin, claiming that the Mohave tattooed the faces of captives to ensure they would be recognised if they escaped — a far-cry from the truth that most Mohave women donned chin tattoos.

Despite Olive referring to her experience with the Mohave tribe less fondly over time, most accounts do suggest that Olive was happy living with the Mohave tribe, willingly accepting the traditional tattoo and not making any efforts to contact white travellers who would occasionally visit the tribe.

Olive resumed a seemingly normal life, completing education at the University of the Pacific and marrying a cattleman, John Fairchild. Olive and John adopted a baby girl named Mamie and grew more reserved about her past in the Mohave tribe.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on 20th March 1903. Olive is buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.

To first scholarly biography of Olive Oatman was published by Margot Mifflin in 2009. The book debunks a number of myths and speculations about Olive’s time with the Mojave tribe. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman can be bought on Amazon here.

Poppy Mae

Written by

Poppy Mae

Social media manager, Bristol Tattoo Club member & occasional writer about traditional tattoo history.