Olive Oatman



This haunting image is of Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild.  Olive was born in 1837 to a Mormon family, one of seven children of Royse and Mary Ann Oatman.  Royse had started raising his family in Illinois, briefly moved to Pennsylvania around 1849, and by 1850 had decided to join a wagon train of around 90 fellow believers to go west.

Olive’s father had suffered from back problems that he was convinced were aggravated by the extreme weather that they experienced in the North.  Each winter, when the cold weather set in, he would work until he could hardly function being disabled by chronic back pain.  So, when fellow believers decided in 1849 to put a wagon train together, Oatman became enthusiastic about the prospect of moving to a less volatile southern climate and an opportunity to have a new financial start with a number of fellow members of a split off group from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS, or Mormon).  Their ultimate goal was to settle far out west and try to reach the mouth of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, on the eastern side of the Gulf of California.  They were followers of James C. Brewster, who along with his followers had split off from the main LDS Church.  The split and what followed is too lengthy a story to be dealt with here, but the breakaway group was called “Brewsterites.”

The group left Independence, Missouri on August 10, 1850 with an initial heading in a southwesterly direction toward the big bend of the Arkansas River, located today in Central Kansas.  They made 100 miles the first week.  The group preceded almost without incident on the old Santa Fe Road until they had made 500 miles and reached the New Mexico territory.  They remained one night in a village they called Moro (exact location unknown and possibly now a ghost town) and soon reached Santa Fe via “Santa Fe Pass” which is likely a reference to a southerly route that would have included Pecos, New Mexico.

They arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1851.  There was considerable disagreement and the group essentially split.  It appears that Brewster and a majority of the group continued on south on the old Santa Fe Trail and the smaller Oatman group headed west on the Kearny-Cooke road towards the Gila River.  The group following Brewster stopped to settle near Socorro, New Mexico (rather than to seek their original goal of near the Baja area of California) while the Oatman group elected to continue on west.  The Oatman group reached a Pima Indian settlement at Maricopa Wells, where travelers had been known to be able to resupply, but at that time, the Pimas were poor and had little food to sell.  Royse Oatman still decided to continue on towards Yuma via Tucson while the other families broke off, resolving to remain where they were for a while.  Despite being warned of the hazards, the Oatmans continued on alone until they were attacked in what became known as the Oatman Massacre.

Now alone, on their fourth day out, they had reached a point about 80-90 miles east of Yuma, Arizona.  There they were approached on foot by a group of 19 Indians who first requested food and tobacco, but then attacked and killed most of the Oatman family.  The only survivor left at the scene was 15 year old Lorenzo, who woke to find his family murdered except for two of his sisters, Olive (14) and Mary Ann (7) who were missing.  Lorenzo had been struck on the head, thrown into a ravine and left for dead.  Once revived, he walked away from the site and after going over 15 miles, he encountered two Pima tribesmen from the settlement where the family had recently visited.  Eventually, he was able to join the other travelers from whom their group had lastly split who returned to the scene and helped Lorenzo bury his family.

The fate of Olive and Mary Ann was unknown for some time.  In addition, there was confusion about the identity of the Indians who had attacked the Oatmans.  Initially they were thought to have been Apaches, because of the location of the attack, but later were identified to have been of the Tolkepaya (also called Yavapais) tribe.

Olive later related that she first expected that she and Mary Ann would soon be killed, but instead they were used as slaves, treated harshly, and required to do menial tasks of service for the tribe.  About a year later, they were traded to a group of Mohave Indians, who resided roughly near the current location of Yuma, Arizona.  The living conditions were generally better, due to the place where the tribe lived being more habitable, though they too suffered from periodic famine conditions.  Olive wrote that the sisters were treated more kindly by this group and she later expressed her affection for certain members of the Mohave tribe.

It was during her Mohave captivity that Olive and Mary Ann received their blue cactus ink tattoos on their chins and arms.  Mohave tradition seems to indicate that only family members received tribal tattoos but Olive said in her lectures and written accounts that it was a mark of their position as slaves of the tribe.  The written account attributed to Olive said that the process included pricking the skin with a sharp stick, dipping the stick in the juice of a plant and transferring the color from a pulverized blue stone that was found in low water in the river.  Her account continued that the design of the girls’ tattoos was different from those given to the tribal women, in order to identify them as captives.  During her captivity, the tribe had occasional encounters with Anglo traders and railway workers, but it is understood that Olive did not try to interact with them or escape.  She was unaware that Lorenzo, her brother, had survived and it is speculated that not knowing that her brother was alive may have led to her electing to remain with the tribe.

The Oatman girls lived with the Mohave tribe for a number of years, experiencing some extended periods of famine during which Mary Ann died of starvation around 1854, along with a number of Mohave children.  When Olive was about 19, a Quechan Indian helped negotiate her release to the U. S. Army at Fort Yuma.  She was accompanied by a daughter of the chief.  After arriving at the fort, she learned for the first time that Lorenzo was alive and had been searching for both sisters for years.  Lorenzo could not have known that Mary Ann had died.  Lorenzo and Olive were reunited at Fort Yuma.  Olive’s return and reunion with Lorenzo around 1856 made national news.

The basic facts of the above account, with some exceptions as noted below, were related by a Methodist missionary pastor, Royal B. Stratton, whose book about the Oatman story, Life Among the Indians, was a best seller at the time.  Stratton used royalties from the book to fund Olive’s and Lorenzo’s education.  However, Stratton’s account did not refer to the religious aspect of the wagon train expedition, nor did it refer to the Brewsterites.  Further, Stratton was accused by some to have exploited Lorenzo and Olive for his own personal gain.

The Stratton book generally depicts non-whites in a negative and disparaging manner.  It is not the only account of the Olive and Lorenzo’s experience, but the Stratton book is an interesting one and is still available for purchase or download.  When it is read with the foreknowledge of the possible biases of the author, the Stratton account provides many details of the Oatmans’ experiences.  A more recent book, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, by Margot Mifflin has been suggested as a more balanced factual account of Olive’s experience.

Upon her release, Olive was first taken to the California home of an Army officer named Thompson.  A cousin, Harvey Oatman, arrived from Oregon to take Olive away, but Thompson declined to allow him to take her.  Thompson instead introduced her to the above mentioned Rev. Stratton.

Following Olive’s return to the Anglo world, some details of her captivity differed in certain respects.  The extent of Olive’s harsh treatment as a slave, her status in the Mohave community, whether or not she was married to a Mohave brave differed according to the person relating the particular element of her story.  Olive was even said to have altered some details of her account from time to time but firmly maintained that she had remained chaste and had been well treated by the Mohaves.

In 1865 when she was still in her twenties, Olive married Capt. John B. Fairchild in Rochester, New York.  Fairchild was a wealthy rancher and businessman who owned property near Sherman, Texas.  The couple moved to Sherman where Fairchild organized and served as president of City Bank.  Olive and Fairchild lived there for a number of years and had one adopted daughter.  The Fairchilds were members of the community in Sherman for many years, although it is said that Olive was somewhat private and still troubled by her ordeal.  Olive died of heart failure in 1903 at about the age of 65 and is interred in West Hills Cemetery in Sherman.  Fairchild survived her until 1907 and is also buried in Sherman.  Their graves received a Texas Historical Grave Marker around 1970.

There is a television series named Hell on Wheels that contains a female character not based on Olive.  Olive’s story was also mirrored in an episode of the long running western series Death Valley Days in which Ronald Reagan appeared as an Army colonel.  In the episode, Reagan’s character helps a brother locate a sister who had been captured by Indians.

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