Olive Oatman, photographed in 1857
Olive Oatman is not the only well-known captive who was recovered and returned to her home community, but her story does exemplify what happened to women who were captured by Native American Indians and the ongoing emotional trauma they experienced when they were returned to their families. These women lived in two worlds, and they were often rejected by both. Olive Oatman not only carried the physical scars of her ordeal for the rest of her life, but emotional scars, as well.
Massacre in Arizona
Olive Ann Oatman was born in Illinois in September of either 1837 or 1839. There were seven children in the family: Lorenzo, Mary Ann, Charity Ann, Lucy, Olive, Roland and Royce. In 1850, when Olive was 13 or 14 years old, her parents, Royce and Mary Ann Oatman, decided to join a wagon train in Independence, Missouri headed west for California. For unknown reasons, the train split up several times and eventually the Oatmans were left to travel alone through dangerous territory. Reiter's The Women claims Royce Oatman was frustrated by the constant feuding in the wagon train and decided to press on alone, but this is doubtful as he would have known that leaving the train would be reckless and dangerous. It is more logical to assume they were left behind when families left the train to stay in towns along the way then the train split due to arguments, which did happen on occasion.
Regardless of the reason for their isolation, the Oatmans were alone and traveling through the Gila River Valley when their wagon was attacked by Yavapai, possibly Tolkepayas. Olive and her sister, Mary Ann, who was seven-years-old, watched in horror as every member of their family was beaten and killed. At the time, Olive did not know her brother survived the attack. He appeared to be dead when the two young women were led away from the wagon.
Lorenzo Oatman was born in 1836 in Illinois, which would have made him a year or two older than Olive, and remarkably, Lorenzo did survive the attack of the Tolkepayas.
Lorenzo Oatman, courtesy of Library of Congress
One can assume that he took time to recover from his wounds and possibly buried his family, although doing so would have alerted the Tolkepayas to the fact that he had survived. He may have started out immediately to find help, and he did find help. He somehow managed to locate part of the wagon train they had lost at Maricopa Wells. He survived his wounds and, knowing his sisters were still alive, vowed to spend the rest of his life tracking them down. Lorenzo Oatman immediately began a five year search for Olive and Mary Ann.
Sold to Mojaves, and More Tragic Moments for Olive
Olive and her sister served as slaves of the Tolkepayas for a year, then they were sold to a Mojave chief for blankets, vegetables and horses. They followed their captors on foot for ten days to their encampment further north on the Colorado River near what is now Needles, California. The girls had no idea what to expect from their new captors, but discovered they were treated better, received few beatings, and were allowed to grow their own food. Their chins were marked with blue cactus tattoos. Some sources say this was a mark of their status as slaves. However, according to historians, most Mojave women at that time had tattoos on their chins.
Then in 1853, Olive experienced yet another devastating loss. A severe drought hit the area and the crops died, along with many of the tribe members and her precious sister, little Mary Ann. Olive was alone.
Possibilities for Escape
According to Margot Miflin's "10 Myths About Olive Oatman," in 1854, 200 white men met with the Mojave to mingle and trade when the Whipple Expedition came through to survey the area for the railroads. Some historians have questioned why Olive did not leave at this point. There were reportedly numerous traders who came to the Mojave encampment and she could have escaped or asked to be traded. However, she must have known that she would never again be accepted into the society of the small towns in the area because she had lived so long with the Mojave. She may have feared retribution and punishment. She knew no one would accompany her to a settlement and may have feared she would receive even worse treatment from a white man if she dared to ask for help.
Olive also believed her entire family was massacred. As you'll recall, she didn't know Lorenzo survived, and when Mary Ann died I would think she would have felt as if the Mojave was the only family she had left. According to Mifflin, Mary Ann and Olive were not treated as slaved by the Mojave. They were adopted by a family and given the family name of Oach. The Mojave referred to them as ahwe, a word that means stranger, not slave.
Lorenzo did survive, and he was still searching. At some point during the winter of 1855-56 the U.S. Army received word that Olive was living with the Mojave and began negotiations for her return. On February 28, 1856, Olive Oatman was ransomed and reunited with Lorenzo Oatman at Fort Yuma, Arizona. According to the Sherrie McLeRoy, Olive was ransomed for a horse, blanket, and beads.
Joan Reiter reports in The Women that Olive's skin was browned and burnt by years of exposure to the sun and she was barely recognizable when she was finally reunited with her brother. She refused to speak and seemed to have trouble remembering the English language. She was wearing a skirt made of bark and other Mojave garments, but members of the community provided her with clothing and her brother and cousins helped her adjust. She wore a veil to cover the tattoos.
Photo of Olive Oatman, Arizona Historical Society
Olive spent days with her face hidden in her hands, perhaps because those who rescued and cared for her recoiled in prejudice and horror when they saw that tattoos, but this is my speculation. I also believe she suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress.
Tours and Lecture Circuit
Shortly after she was rescued, the Reverend Royal B. Stratton wrote the story of Olive and little Mary Ann in Life Among the Indians, which was wildly successful because it was one of few published stories about what happened to captives. Lorenzo and Olive received enough payment from sales of the book to pay for their educations at the University of the Pacific. After graduation, they moved to New York with Stratton and Olive toured the city, lecturing to promote the book. During these tours she removed the veil from her face to show the tattoos.
The Marriage of Olive Oatman and John Brant Fairchild
In 1865, Olive Oatman met and married a cattleman, John Brant Fairchild (1830-1907). Fairchild burned all copies of Stratton's book and the tours ended.
The couple lived in Detroit for a short time then moved to Texas. Fairchild was the president of the City Bank of Sherman, Texas and eventually became wealthy through land investments. Olive and John adopted a daughter and Olive tried to work with orphaned children, but suffered often from depression.
Continued Post Traumatic Stress
According to Mifflin, and contrary to popular misconceptions, Olive was never admitted to an insane asylum, though she did spend three months at a medical spa in Canada. In contemporary times, it would be recognized that she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the rest of her life.
However, the Reverend Stratton was committed to an asylum and died there in 1875.
Lorenzo Oatman married Edna Amelia Canfield on August 3, 1860 in Illinois. He died in Nebraska on October 8, 1901.
Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903. She is buried in West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas. According to the TSHA, a Texas historical marker was placed on her grave in 1969.
There is conflicting information regarding the details of Olive Oatman's life in captivity and after she was returned to her family. I have created this article using what I consider to be the most reliable sources available.
- Margot, Miffin. "Ten Myths About Olive Oatman." True West Magazine. Published August 1, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- McLeRoy, Sherrie S. "FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- Reiter, Joan Swallow. "The Great Marriage Boom." The Old West: The Women. Canada: 1978.