The Many Lives of Olive Oatman, Tattooed Captive of the West
In the summer of 1850, the Oatman family headed west with visions of a promised land in the Southwest. Six months later, they were massacred in the Sonoran Desert, and Olive Oatman began what would become one of the West’s most famous captivity stories.
In the mid-1800s, thousands of emigrants launched their overland journeys west from Independence, Missouri, a bustling outpost on the Missouri River where wagon trains could stock up and get the latest word on conditions of the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Santa Fe Trail and other westward routes.
In July 1850, Roys (Royce) Oatman, his wife, Mary Ann, and their seven children joined a group of families in Independence to follow the lead of James Colin Brewster, a young Mormon prophet who, as young as age 10, had received “visions and recited chapters from purported lost books of ancient scripture.”
Like Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder killed in 1844, Brewster was a self-proclaimed “revelator,” who over the course of several years had been supposedly contacted by an ancient Israelite prophet named Esdras. The prophet told Brewster to head toward the Southwest, where the Colorado River and Gila River merged.
At the time, this region was controlled by Mexico, but Brewster and his followers — the Brewsterites — believed it to be the ideal spot to “gather from all the countries of the earth, and establish and build up the Kingdom of Righteousness,” according to Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History.
Brewster’s prophesies and leadership would eventually disintegrate, but not before the Oatmans and a dozen other families joined together and left Independence in early August 1850.
Over the next six months, the Oatmans would face challenges typical of the overland journey, and by the winter of 1851, in the Mexican state of Sonora, they were low on supplies and morale. Travel delays, changing leaders and tensions between families all dragged out the trip, and when the Oatman family left Maricopa Wells — an emigrant rest stop near Maricopa and Pima (Akimel O’odham) villages — in February 1851, they did so by themselves.
Despite warnings from the Maricopa, and Dr. John LeConte, an entomologist who had recently seen “Apaches” on the route to California, Roys made the decision to move ahead with no other families: in his mind, they were too close to settle now.
The Oatman wagon pushed forward into the desert, and in mid February, camped on an overlook above the Gila River and desperately low on food, the Oatmans were approached by a small group of what they believed to be Apache Indians.
Considering the region, the group was likely Tolkepaya Yavapai, a Yuman-speaking people who lived north of the Gila River and east of the Colorado River. At that time, however, many of the desert-dwelling people of the region were lumped into the “Apache” label out of ignorance, convenience or both.
“Many Americans believed the mountain dwellers constituted a single, monolithic ‘Apache’ tribe when in fact individual bands were usually independent entities,” wrote Timothy Braatz in Surviving Conquest: A History of the Yavapai Peoples.
The Yavapai asked Roys for food, and perhaps not satisfied with his answer that he had little to offer, began to take stock of the Oatmans’ scant outfit.
Roys “gave them bread and they demanded more,” wrote Margot Mifflin in The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, “standing up and rummaging around inside the wagon themselves.”
Whether the Yavapai attack was premeditated will never be known, but within minutes, their demeanor changed and the massacre was underway. The Yavapai — some 19 in number, by Olive’s later count — made quick work of the family, killing Roys, Mary Ann, who was pregnant with the couple’s eighth child, and four of the Oatman children.
Lorenzo, 14, was hit in the head and thrown off the overlook, where he was left for dead. Only two girls were spared: 13-year-old Olive and her sister, 8-year-old Mary Ann. Though alive, the children now had to watch as the rest of their family died at the hands and war clubs of the marauding Yavapai.
“Occasionally a low, piteous moan would come from some one of the family as in a dying state,” said Olive in The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. “I distinguished the groans of my poor mother, and sprang wildly toward her, but was held back by the merciless savage holding me in his cruel grasp, and lifting a club over my head, threatening me in the most taunting, barbarous manner.”
After pillaging the Oatman wagon and securing what remained of the family’s livestock, the Yavapai ushered Olive and Mary Ann into the desert north of the Gila River, where they hiked to a nearby encampment. It was the first stop on a days-long journey that would cover more than 60 miles and take the Oatman girls into a territory unknown by white settlers.
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Life with the Yavapai
Thus ended the first life of Olive Oatman; she was raised a devout Mormon child in the Midwest, not far from where Mormonism spread in Illinois in the 1840s. Her family headed west in search of a better life — much the same as Brigham Young-led Mormons headed toward the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846.
But the family’s ambitions were cut short by the reality of life in a land where indigenous people had lived for hundreds of years: where resources were scant and relations between emigrants and local populations were delicate at best.
The Yavapai weren’t known for attacking emigrant trains, but the circumstances of the time may have made an attack more likely: winter food was scarce, and the Oatman wagon, traveling alone and with few resources, may have been an easy target.
Over the coming months, Mary Ann and Olive were held captive by the Yavapai, who were semi-nomadic and covered a wide swath of desert and mountain in their seasonal searches for food and resources.
The girls provided what was essentially slave labor, and though their working conditions were rough, time softened the Yavapais’ treatment of the girls. Within months, the Oatmans learned enough of the Yavapai language to engage with their captors, which worked to the sisters’ advantage.
“At the very least, such exchanges humanized the Oatman sisters in the eyes of the Yavapai, who, having discovered their entertainment value, treated them better,” wrote Mifflin in The Blue Tattoo.
By the end of 1851, Olive and Mary Ann heard rumors of the Yavapai selling them to the Mohave, who had visited in the fall and expressed interest in trading for the sisters. In the spring of 1852, a Mohave chief’s daughter — “a beautiful, mild, and sympathizing” 17-year-old named Topeka — accompanied several Mohave men in trade negotiations for the Oatmans.
After much deliberation, the Yavapai received two horses, blankets, food and beads for the young Oatman captives. It would not be the last time Olive was traded for goods in the wilds of the Sonoran Desert.
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Life with the Mohave
The Oatmans’ tenure with the Mohave started much the same way as their first bout of captivity, with a forced trek hundreds of miles across the desert with little food and inadequate footwear, though the Mohave eventually made them buckskin moccasins.
According to Olive, the journey to Mohave Valley, where the tribe resided on the Colorado River (north of present-day Lake Havasu City), took 10 days to complete, and on the eleventh day they came upon “a large number of huts, clothing the valley in every direction.”
Topeka, the chief’s daughter, cared for the girls during and after the journey, providing blankets and food to keep them in relative comfort. A celebration of song and dance accompanied the girls’ arrival, and although they were still captives, there was a noticeable, jovial difference in the Mohave.
The Oatmans would again provide labor to their captors — this time for the Mohave children — but once again, the sisters learned enough language and social norms to engage with their new group. Topeka and the chief’s family were hospitable to the Oatmans, at least compared to the Yavapai, and the sisters soon found themselves in conversations about topics like agriculture and the ways of white settlers.
The Mohave first treated the Oatman girls as “strange intruders,” but with each passing season, the sisters became more acclimated to Mohave culture. They would sing Christian hymns and prayers in exchange for beads, and work side by side with other women of the tribe collecting food, including mesquite beans and various roots and berries.
The work was laborious, but the Oatmans gained respect within the community and apparently, enough of a standing to become tattooed, which was only done to the Mohave themselves — not their captives or slaves. Although some accounts claim Olive and Mary Ann were tattooed in order to identify them if they escaped, the Mohave tattooed for spiritual purposes, including to “allow people’s descendants to recognize them in the afterlife,” wrote Mifflin.
Olive and Mary Ann, who was at many points in her captivity weak from lack of food, were both tattooed with traditional Mohave facial patterns.
“They then pricked the skin in small regular rows on our chins with a very sharp stick, until they bled freely. They then dipped these same sticks in the juice of a certain weed that grew on the banks of the river, and then in the powder of a blue stone that was to be found in low water, in some places along the bed of the stream, (the stone they first burned until it would pulverize easy, and in burning it turned nearly black,) and pricked this fine powder into these lacerated parts of the face.”The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians
In her story edited by Royal Stratton, Olive doesn’t commit much space to her tattoos (she also received one on her arm), but those five vertical lines on her chin would come to define her captivity more than anything else, even her story itself.
It was used as a symbol of the “savagery” of the Mohave, but there’s evidence to suggest Olive willingly received the tattoo as a welcome participant in their society. The fact that the lines of the tattoo are so straight, for example, suggests she didn’t struggle or have to be restrained during the process. She may have thought they had little choice in the matter, but the idea that they would even be tattooed in the first place suggested the sisters had been fully accepted into the Mohave as more than just captives.
By early 1854, Olive and Mary Ann were by all accounts adopted by the Mohave: they had traditional tribal tattoos, and even took on clan names and nicknames. Olive was known as “Ali” or “Olivino,” and because the Mohave loved “bawdy sobriquets” due to their sexually open culture, she was also known as “Spantsa,” which may have meant “sore vagina” or “rotten vagina,” a possible reference to her menstruating upon arrival to the Mohave Valley.
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The Whipple Party
When Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple arrived with a large surveying party in the Chemehuevis Valley in February 1854, he was scouting an ambitious railroad route from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, and wanted to cross the Colorado River in the process. Whipple met with several high-profile Mohave chiefs who approved the lieutenant’s plans, and for several days an impromptu bazaar broke out at the Whipple camp, where Mohave men and women traded with Whipple’s party.
“White cotton, calico blankets, and white or blue porcelain beads commanded high prices from the tribe; glass and coral beads were nearly worthless to them. Some women traded their bark skirts to men who had ethnographic collections; likewise Mohave men bartered weapons and ornaments for blankets, fabric, and clothes.”The Blue Tattoo
For the Mohave, who lived in such an isolated and remote locale, an experience like the Whipple party gathering would’ve been significant, but curiously, the Oatman girls were not seen during the trading festivities. Whether or not they attended the Whipple camp is unclear — Stratton leaves out any mention of Whipple’s stay near the Mohave, and Whipple himself didn’t see them — but it does suggest the Oatmans weren’t interested in returning to white civilization.
They would’ve doubtlessly heard about the Whipple party at some point, so the fact that they didn’t present themselves to the government camp points to their willingness to stay with the Mohave, even given the chance to leave.
The idea that they were willing to stay with the Mohave was censured or ignored in later accounts, as captivity stories had a strong agenda to prove indigenous people to be ruthless “savages,” and white, Christian civilization as the morally superior of the two cultures. Any indication that two young white women would chose to stay with their captives didn’t fit the story arc that Stratton and other authors were pitching for profit in the 19th century.
The following year, a dry spring and brutal summer led to a weak harvest in the fall of 1855. Low on food, the Mohave traveled regionally to find more sustenance, but Mary Ann, who had been frail for some time now, approached her last days. After returning from a multiday journey to find food, Olive came home to see Mary Ann on the brink of death.
“She seemed now to regard life no longer as worth preserving, and she kept constantly repeating expressions of longing to die and be removed from a gloomy captivity to a world where no tear of sorrow dims the eye of innocence and beauty. She called me to her side one day and said: ‘Olive, I shall die soon; you will live and get away. Father and mother have got through with sufferings, and are now at rest; I shall soon be with them and those dear brothers and sisters.'”The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians
Olive was also close to death, and recovered only when a Mohave woman snuck her “some corn gruel in a hollow stone” that had been cached in the spring. She would survive that fall and winter, but in the early days of 1856, her life would be uprooted once again.
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The Return of Olive Oatman
When the Oatman wagon was attacked in February 1851, the Yavapai dispatched nearly all of the Oatman children, but 14-year-old Lorenzo, thought dead, somehow managed to survive.
“After being left by the Indians, the thoughts I had, traces of which are still in my memory, were of opening my eyes, knowing perfectly my situation, and thinking that each breath would be the last,” Lorenzo recounted to Stratton.
He remembered enough to know that at least one of his sisters had been taken during the assault, and after crawling his way back toward Maricopa Wells — he was rescued several days later by two Akimel O’odham men — his immediate goal was to find his sisters.
He eventually made his way west to Fort Yuma, the military post the Oatmans had originally aimed for before being attacked, but found little help at the base. The fort’s commander, Samuel P. Heintzelman, had no interest in helping Lorenzo, so there was little the Oatman brother could do to find his siblings.
For years Lorenzo made efforts to investigate the girls’ captivity, but for a number of political and financial reasons, little was done to help his efforts until 1855. That year, Lorenzo spent time with a party looking for the Mohave Valley, but to no avail. But steady rumors of the Oatman girl circulated in Quechan bands around Fort Yuma, and a false report that the fort’s current commander, Martin Burke, turned down an opportunity to trade for Olive prompted an actual investigation into the matter.
In January 1856, Lorenzo and others petitioned California governor John Neely Johnson for help retrieving his sister, and by the end of the month, Fort Yuma had sent out Francisco, a Quechan ally and runner, to meet with the Mohave to negotiate Olive’s return.
Interestingly, the “travel pass” Francisco carried requested Olive “send her reasons” if she wished to stay with the Mohave, suggesting the rumors about her also included the notion that she had stayed in captivity by choice. Later, Olive claimed that she was free to leave the Mohave camp at any point, but because she didn’t know where they were, crossing the desert by herself seemed like a death sentence.
In a setting similar to Olive’s first trade, Francisco and the Mohave negotiated for several days, and after some reluctance, Mohave chief Espaniole relented, and traded Olive Oatman to Francisco for two horses, some beads and blankets.
With her fate decided, Olive recalled her last memories of the Mohave Valley.
“I now began to think of really leaving my Indian home. Involuntarily my eye strayed over that valley. I gazed on every familiar object. The mountains that stood about our valley home, like sentinels tall and bold, their every shape, color, and height, as familiar as the door-yard about the dwelling in which I had been reared.”The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians
Those mixed emotions would shape Olive’s life after captivity. Twice she had been abducted from one culture and placed abruptly in another: first, by the Yavapai, and now, by the U.S. government. She had acclimated to life as a Mohave — not just as one of their slaves — and now, she was forced to adjust to life as a proper white woman in a quickly changing Western frontier.
In many traditional captivity stories, the captive is returned to their origin society with the knowledge that they had been “saved,” in line with Christian themes of the day, but in Olive’s case, it wasn’t clear that she had been placed in an objectively “better” environment.
The obvious trauma of Olive’s young life may have given her a false sense of place with the Mohave, but the fact is that after four years with them, she had adopted their lifestyle completely, and they welcomed her transition. She also wasn’t aware, until she returned to Fort Yuma in February 1856, that any of her family was alive, so she may have had little motivation to return to white society.
But in early 1856, Olive and Lorenzo were reunited, and she began her life of post-captivity. The siblings spent time in California and Oregon, where Olive met Royal Byron Stratton, a Methodist reverend who would helm the first published story of her saga with The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians.
The book was an immediate bestseller, but like many Western dramas, it was reshaped to fit a popular narrative: the captivity story. Stratton took liberties with timelines and events, even shifting Mary Ann’s death to a time that would explain why the Oatmans didn’t visit the Whipple camp.
Stratton’s story hinged on the idea that the Oatmans had suffered at the hands of “untutored, untamed savages,” and anything that suggested Olive may have voluntarily adapted to such a life didn’t fit the storyline.
Over the next few years, Olive would join Stratton on the lecture circuit, hosting talks with Eastern audiences curious about life in the West. She was a talented speaker, and though she struggled with the mixed emotions of leaving the Mohave, she publicly adopted Stratton’s staunch prejudice against them in her speeches.
Those who knew her well in these days remarked on her visible sadness and grief. Though she attempted to move on from her ordeal, Olive wore her many lives outwardly, like the blue tattoo that marked her chin, which was now both an asset from which she profited, and something she wished to hide.
In late 1865, Olive married John Fairchild, and together they settled in Sherman, Texas, where John was a successful merchant and rancher, and Olive spent time doing charity work with local orphanages.
In 1873, the Episcopalian couple adopted a three-week-old baby, Mary Elizabeth, and in her later years Olive’s health declined to the point that she had to visit a sanitarium back east. In their later years, the Oatman siblings drifted apart and exchanged few letters. On March 20, 1903, 65-year-old Olive died of a heart attack, less than two years after Lorenzo died on October 8, 1901.
The Legacy of Olive Oatman
In 1682, six years after she was abducted by the Narragansett during a raid in King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson published the account of her captivity, which lasted 11 weeks, but set a whole literary category into motion: the captivity narrative.
“In it a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God,” wrote Richard Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.
In the years between Rowlandson’s abduction and Olive Oatman’s saga, hundreds of captivity stories circulated the country, nearly all a testament to the righteousness of white civilization, and a denunciation of indigenous cultures. Stories of abduction by Native Americans both justified the westward expansion of settlers that could not be stopped and provided a terrifying example of its inherent dangers.
In some ways Olive Oatman’s captivity was typical: she was taken during an assault on intruding settlers, and forced to provide labor for her captors. But in the four years she lived with the Mohave, she was so thoroughly embedded in their culture that she became, by all accounts, a Mohave.
Like Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches at 8 years old in 1836, and who later refused to adjust back to white civilization, Olive Oatman was torn between two cultures at one of the most pivotal developmental stages of her life.
In her time with each society, she took steps to assimilate: in the Mohave Valley, she was tattooed and willingly gathered food with peers; after captivity, she renounced her admiration for her former captors and eventually spoke less of her time in the desert. Her husband even burned copies of Stratton’s books in an effort to move past that chapter of her life.
Traces of her past lives followed Olive, but so did a sense of dignity and quiet perseverance. Few women experienced the West’s clash of cultures as directly as Olive, and though she struggled with her identities — as a young Mormon girl, a Mohave captive, a lecturer, a well-to-do rancher’s wife — she did appear to find solace in her later life in Texas.
“She was quiet and reserved; the great suffering of her life set her apart from the world, but she was a noble, helpful woman, always first to aid the sick and poor, and especially children in need,” remarked historian Sharlot Hall.
The Southwest, like Olive, underwent rapid change in the 1850s: when the Oatmans were attacked in 1851, land south of the Gila River belonged to Mexico. Two years later, it would join the United States’ New Mexico Territory with the signing of the Gadsden Purchase. And in the years after Olive’s release, the Mohave would be forced into small reservations that completely altered the trajectory of their people.
The four years Olive spent with the Mohave was perhaps the last window of autonomy both for the captors and captive: a time when both were mostly unencumbered by the demands of a growing, power-hungry United States driven by the ideals of Manifest Destiny — the same notion that sent Roys Oatman and his family west from Independence.
And though Olive would return to white society, she’d be forever defined by her past: by her crude, blue tattoo, and by the captivity story she was forced to censor if she wished to survive in the last of her many lives.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Beam, A. (2015). American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. PublicAffairs.
- Braatz, T. (2007). Surviving Conquest: A History of the Yavapai Peoples. Univ of Nebraska Pr.
- Harrison, M., Williams, J., Khera, S., & Butler, C. C. (2015). Oral History of the Yavapai. Acacia Publishing, Inc.
- Launius, R. D., & Thatcher, L. (1994). Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History. University of Illinois Press.
- McGinty, B. (2005). The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Mifflin, M. (2011). The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. University of Nebraska Press.
- Stratton, R. B., Oatman, L. D., Oatman, O. A., & Dean, M. (1994). The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. Dover Publications, Inc.
- Worcester, D. E. (1981). The Apaches: Eagles of the Southwest. University of Oklahoma Press.
D.T. Christensen is the founder of OldWest.org, a history website committed to sharing and preserving stories of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and also writes for Territory Supply and True Crime Time.