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Olive Oatman- The poignant story of the Mormon girl with a tattooed face …

The amazing story of Olive Oatman begins in 1837 in Illinois.

She had three sisters and three brothers, all brought up in the Mormon religion.

Her father was Royce and her mother, Mary Ann.

Olive Oatman
Olive Oatman

In 1850, when Olive was 13, the family joined a wagon train bound for California.

This group of people, aged between 85 and 93, were convinced by the prominent Mormon James Brewster that Mormons ought to settle in California and not in Utah as it was decreed by the founder, Brigham Young.

They were set upon by a group of Native Americans, probably Tolkepayas (though Olive would later claim they were Apaches).

The only members of the family who survived were Olive, her brother Lorenzo and the youngest sister, Mary Ann.

Lorenzo Oatman, Olive’s brother.
Lorenzo Oatman, Olive’s brother.

They were carried away to a village.

Lorenzo had been clubbed. But he soon returned consciousness.

He found his family dead and made for a nearby settlement.

He was treated there and rejoined the train 3 days later.

He discovered the bodies of his family members and buried them.

He didn’t find the bodies of Olive and Mary Ann, so he continued his way to California.

Olive (left) and Mary Oatman, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, 1857
Olive (left) and Mary Oatman, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, 1857

Olive and Mary Ann believed they would be killed by their captors.

Instead, they were forced to work: gathering wood, collecting water, finding food and other tasks.

They were often cruelly treated.

One year later, they were traded to a group of Mohave for two horses, some vegetables, blankets and other trinkets.

The girls were taken to a village on the Colorado River (today’s Needles, California).

The kohot or chieftain of the village adopted the girls.

The kohot’s non-Mohave name was Espanesay and his wife’s was Aespaneo.

Their daughter was Topeka. They called her Oach. She also had a nickname, Spantsa.

They were treated well and later Olive became really affectionate towards them.

Olive and Mary Ann were given plots of lands to farm.


Olive married with a person from the tribe and had two sons, though she later denied that. According to the Mohave tradition, they were both tattooed on the chin and arms.

Later, she claimed that those were marks of slavery, but they appeared to be an expression of acceptance.

The tattoos were applied in order that the the ancestors would recognize them as Mohaves when they died.

When a group of railway surveyors visited the village in 1854, she did not attempt to identify herself to the visitors. When they later visited Mohaves in New York, she spoke fondly about the old times.

Mary Ann died around 1855, affected by a drought.

Many Mohave perished as well. Olive, completely unaware that Lorenzo had survived, believed herself to be the only member of the Oatman family who had survived.

Rumors spread to Fort Yuma across the Colorado River, that a white girl was living amongst the Mohave.

In 1856, a Native American messenger was sent from the post commander to ask for her return.

At first, the Mohave hid Olive and refused to negotiate.

They expressed their attachment to her and the fear of reprisal probably also influenced their desire to hide her.

The Mohave were offered goods and at last, when they were threaten, they handed Olive over. Topeka accompanied her on the 20-day trek to Fort Yuma.

Olive’s arrival was greeted with great rejoicing.

She was clothed in European dress again.


According to Susan Thompson, whom Olive befriended at that time, she had grieved about being separated from her husband and children.

At the fort, she discovered that her brother was alive.

Olive married John B. Fairchild, a cattle rancher.

They adopted an infant girl and settled in Sherman, Texas.

Olive Oatman
Olive Oatman

Olive died of a heart attack on 20th March, 1903.

She was 65. A prospector, Johnny Moss, laid a claim in the Black Mountains, Arizona and named it “Oatman” after Olive. The town of Oatman still commemorates her.

Neil Patrick

Neil Patrick is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News