Olive Oatman (Indian captive)

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Olive Ann Fairchild (Oatman)

Birthdate: (65)
Birthplace: La Harpe, Hancock County, Illinois, United States
Death: March 20, 1903 (65)
Sherman, Grayson County, Texas, United States (Heart Attack)
Place of Burial: Sherman, Grayson County, Texas, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Royce Boise Oatman, Sr. and Mary Ann Oatman
Wife of John Brant Fairchild
Mother of Mamie Fairchild, Adopted
Sister of Lorenzo Oatman; Mary Ann Oatman; Charity Ann Oatman; Roland Oatman; Lucy Oatman and 1 other

Managed by: Private User
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About Olive Oatman (Indian captive)

The subject of The Captivity of the Oatman Girls and innumerable other articles and stories, along with her sister Mary Ann, Olive spent her early childhood with her family in Hancock County, IL. After 1842 the family spent brief periods in Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley and in Chicago, IL, then settled in Whiteside County, IL, near Fulton, where they lived near Mary Ann Sperry Oatman's sister, Sarah (Sperry) Abbott.

The Indian captivity, 1851-1856, of Olive and her sister Mary Ann, and the efforts of their brother Lorenzo to free them, make up the contents of The Captivity of the Oatman Girls (originally titled Life Among the Indians in the first edition of 1857). The story of the massacre was also the subject of an episode of "Death Valley Days", in which the role of the cavalry officer who was helping Lorenzo in the search for his sisters was portrayed by then actor Ronald Reagan.

After the massacre, Mary Ann and Olive were driven barefoot over very rough terrain and were soon covered with cuts and bruises from both falls and beatings. Mary Ann was not strong enough to travel all night without stopping so a brave threw her over his back like a sack of meal and carried her. But Olive was expected to keep up the pace and when she fell behind, she was beaten until she caught up. During their entire captivity they were treated as drudges and slaves, enduring unending labor, carrying water and foraging for firewood. The girls were held by the Yavapai Indians for about a year, when they were traded to the Mohave Indians and again subjected to a forced march north to the Mohave Valley on the Colorado River above Needles, California. Both girls were tattooed with the tribal mark consisting of five vertical lines from lower lip to chin. While their second captors treated them kindly, famine struck the village and Mary Ann, who had always been frail, died in 1853 from hardship and starvation. Olive spent another three years in captivity before being released through the efforts of Lorenzo. The U. S. Army paid six pounds of white beads, four blankets, various trinkets and a white horse to the Mohaves for her ransom.

After her release in early 1856, she lived briefly in El Monte, CA, with members of the original wagon train. She and Lorenzo then went to live in the Rogue River area of Oregon, near the present city of Medford, with the families of Harvey and Harrison Oatman, sons of Royce's brother Harry.

Returning to California with Lorenzo, Olive spent six months in school in the Santa Clara Valley. While there, they attracted the attention of a Methodist minister in Yreka, California, Royal B. Stratton, who eventually wrote the book and who took them back east. After a stay with the Sperry family near Rochester, New York, Lorenzo went back to Whiteside County, Illinois. Stratton put Olive on the lecture circuit while he, in turn, furthered her interrupted education. After Olive married Major John Fairchild, a former Indian fighter, the couple moved to Detroit, spending several years in Michigan, then on to Sherman, Texas, where Fairchild was a banker. They lived in Sherman for about 30 years, and both died there.

There have been many articles written through the years about the massacre and, particularly, about Olive. Some reported that she went insane, which apparently is untrue upon viewing her later life's activities. Others indicate that the chin tattoos which she received while in captivity were painfully removed; pictures of her in her later years prove this false, as the tattoos are clear in the picture.

Yet another story about Olive revolves around her leaving behind at least two children when she was ransomed. Although there is no indication of her having children while a captive either in Stratton's book or her lecture notes, it should be remembered that this was not a subject in that era that would be spoken of in polite society.

Olive states that "to the honor of these savages, let it be said they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me." (Captivity, 2nd ed., p. 188). After her release, the Los Angeles Star reported two weeks after her arrival at El Monte, "She has not been made a wife . . . and her defenceless situation [was] entirely respected during her residence among the Indians." Another article, entitled "Tragedy at Oatman Flat: Massacre, captivity, mystery" by Richard Dillon (from The American West, March/April 1981) states: "Susan Thompson (Olive's dear friend on the emigrant train) stated flatly that Olive became the wife of the Mohave Chief's son and that she was the mother of two little boys at the time of her ransom. Another story represented at least one of Olive's Indian children as a girl. The Reese River Reveille (Austin, Nevada) of May 23, 1863, described the five Indian children adopted by Washington ('Wash') Jacobs of Austin and Jacobsville, Nevada, when he was the agent for the Butterfield Stage Company at Oatman Flat in 1858: 'One was a beautiful, light-haired, blue-eyed girl, supposed to have been a child of the unfortunate Olive Oatman, so long a captive among the Apaches [sic] . . . On returning home one day, Mr. Jacobs found the children suffering from severe diarrhoea, caused by a thoughtless fellow feeding them only on meat. Four died before relief could be had, and among them the little girl, "the angel of the house." It was a sad event, bitterly wept over and not to be erased from memory.'"

Another article, one more of humor than of historical note, in the Arizona Republican in Phoenix, dated 30 April 1922, refers to the "opening skirmish of one of the most interesting legal battles in the history of Mohave county . . . in Oatman Court of Domestic Relations when John Oatman, wealthy Mohave Indian, was sued for divorce by his wife, Estelle Oatman . . . John Oatman claims to be the grandson of Olive Oatman, famous in Arizona history."

Without further evidence or proof, it is left to the reader to determine which of the stories are valid.


Olive Oatman (1837-1903) was a woman from Illinois who was famously abducted by a Native American tribe (likely the Yavapai people), then sold to another (the Mohave people). She ultimately regained her freedom five years later. The story resonated in the media, partly owing to the prominent blue tattooing of Oatman's face by her captors. In subsequent years, the tale of Olive Oatman came to be retold with dramatic license in novels, plays, and poetry.

Early life

Born into the family of Royce and Mary Ann Oatman, Olive was one of ten siblings. She grew up in the Mormon faith.

In 1850 the Oatman family joined a wagon train led by James C. Brewster, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), whose attacks on, and disagreements with, the church leadership in Salt Lake City, Utah, had caused him to break with the followers of Brigham Young in Utah and lead his followers — Brewsterites — to California, which he claimed was the "intended place of gathering" for the Mormons.

The Brewsterite emigrants, numbering 52, left Independence, Missouri, August 9, 1850. Dissension caused the group to split near Santa Fe, with Brewster following the northern route. Royce Oatman and several other families chose the southern route via Socorro, Santa Cruz, and Tucson. Near Socorro, Royce assumed command of the party. They reached New Mexico early in 1851 only to find the country and climate wholly unsuited to their purpose. The other wagons gradually abandoned the goal of reaching the mouth of the Colorado. The party had reached Maricopa Wells when they were told that the Indians ahead were very bad and that they would risk their lives if they proceeded further. The other families resolved to stay. The Oatman family, eventually traveling alone, was decimated in what became known as the "Oatman Massacre" on the banks of the Gila River about 80–90 miles east of Yuma in what is now Arizona.

Oatman Massacre

Royce and Mary had seven children at this time, ranging in age from 16 to one year. On their fourth day out, they were approached by a group of Indians, asking for tobacco, food and rifles. At some point during the encounter, the Oatman family was attacked by the group, and all were killed except Lorenzo, age 15, who was clubbed and left for dead; Olive, age 13; and Mary Ann, age 7. Lorenzo awoke to find his parents and family dead, but no sign of Mary Ann and Olive. He eventually reached a settlement where he was treated. Three days later, Lorenzo, who had rejoined the emigrant train, found the bodies of his slain family; "we buried the bodies of father, mother and babe in one common grave." (The Tucson Citizen, September 26, 1913) The men had no way of digging proper graves in the volcanic rocky soil, so they gathered the bodies together and formed a cairn over them. It has been said the remains were reburied several times and finally moved to the river for reinterment by Arizona pioneer Charles Poston.

Abduction and Captivity

Once the attack was complete, the Indians took some of the Oatmans' belongings along with the Oatman girls. The captors were either Tolkepayas or Western Yavapais living in a village nearly 100 miles from the site of her parents' death. After arrival, the girls at first were treated in a way that appeared threatening, and Olive later said she thought she would be killed. Eventually, the girls were used to forage for food, lug water and firewood, and other menial tasks. Miscommunication resulted in beatings.

After a year, a group of Mohave Indians visited the village and traded two horses, vegetables and blankets for the captive girls, after which the girls went on a 10-day journey to the Colorado River and the Mohave village. They arrived into what today is Needles, California. Once there, their cavalry stopped for some time, as they were taken in by the family of Chief Espanesay. This tribe was more prosperous than the girls' prior holders, and the chief's wife and daughter took an interest in the Oatman girls' welfare. The girls were given plots of land to farm and were both tattooed on their chins and arms in keeping with the tribal custom.

About a year later, during a drought in the region, the tribe experienced a shortage of food supplies and Mary Ann died of starvation, at the age of 10.

When Olive Oatman was 16 years old, a Yuma Indian messenger arrived at the village with a message from the authorities at Fort Yuma. Rumors suggested that a white girl was being held captive by the Mohaves and the post commander requested her return. Blankets and horses were sent for trade, but the Indians initially resisted the terms.

Later life

In the end it was decided to take the trade items, and Olive was escorted to Fort Yuma in a 20-day journey. Before entering the fort, Olive insisted she be given proper clothing, as she was clad in nothing more than a grass skirt made of bark. Inside the fort, Olive was surrounded by cheering people. She soon discovered her brother Lorenzo was alive and had been looking for her and her sister. Their meeting made headline news across the West.

In 1857, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton wrote a book about Olive and Mary Ann. The book sold 30,000 copies, a best-seller for that era. In November, 1865, Olive married John B. Fairchild. Though it was rumored that she died in an asylum in New York in 1877, she actually went to live with Fairchild in Sherman, Texas, where they adopted a baby girl, Mamie.

Rumors of Olive Oatman being raped by the Yavapai were denied vehemently, leading her to declare in Stratton's book that "to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me".

In 1981, a writer named Richard Dillon reported in a famous western magazine that there was evidence that Olive had told a friend that she was married to the son of the Mojave chief and that she gave birth to two boys when married to him. This account was never verified.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 21, 1903, at the age of 65. The town of Oatman, Arizona, is named in her honor.

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Olive Oatman (Indian captive)'s Timeline

September 7, 1837
La Harpe, Hancock County, Illinois, United States
February 1874
Age 36
March 20, 1903
Age 65
Sherman, Grayson County, Texas, United States
Sherman, Grayson County, Texas, United States