Olive Oatman: More Than the Girl with the Chin Tattoo

Updated on June 13, 2016
Olive Oatman
Olive Oatman | Source

Olive Oatman is believed to be the first American white woman with a tattoo, and a facial tattoo at that.

Olive was born in 1837 to Royce and Mary Ann Oatman of Illinois. She was one of 10 siblings. Her family was of the Mormon faith. In 1850, Olive’s family headed west in a wagon train Led by James C. Brewster who had broken with the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints due to his disagreements and attacks on the church’s leadership. Formerly a follower of Brigham Young, He led his own ground of 52 families to California, which he believed to be "intended place of gathering" for the Mormons.

Brewster and his band of so-called Brewsterites, left Independence, Missouri on August 9, 1850. Along the way, dissension infected the endeavor and the group split in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Brewster continued traveling north and Oatman having taken command of the group led them south through Socorro, Santa Cruz and Tucson. This turned out to be a mistake and the group made it into New Mexico in the early part of 1851 where they found the weather and climate disagreeable. The families abandoned their goal of reaching the mouth of the Colorado River. At Maricopa Well, Arizona they were advised to travel no further as the native populations were violent and their lives would be at risk. Oatman decided to go on despite the danger. The remaining families stayed behind.

The Oatman family was wiped out along the banks of the Gila River, some 80-90 miles from Yuma, Arizona.



Olive, 13 and her sister Mary Ann, 7, were captured by the either Tolkepayas or Western Yavapais living in a village nearly 100 miles away. They were made to forage, carry water and firewood as well as perform other menial jobs. Not fully understanding the language, they were often beaten for not performing certain tasks. About a year later a group of visiting Mohave traded two horses, vegetables and blankets for the girls. The Mohaves took them on a 10-day journey to the Colorado River and the Mohave village, which today is Needles, California.

One could say the Oatman girls fortunes changed when they were adopted by the Chief and his family. The Chief’s wife apparently developed a fondness for them and each was given a plot of land to farm. Both girls were tattooed on the chin and arms as part of the tribe’s puberty ritual. Sadly, a year later a drought caused a famine and Mary Ann died at age 10.

The Release

When Olive was 19, A Yuma Indian messenger arrived saying the authorities at Fort Yuma had heard reports of a captive white girl and asked she be released. Blankets and horses were offered as trade and at first the offer was refused. Eventually they agreed to the trade terms and Olive was escorted on the 20-day journey to Fort Yuma. Dressed in only a grass skirt, she demanded proper clothing. Inside the fort everyone was cheering her arrival. Olive discovered her brother Lorenzo has survived and had been searching for her and Mary Ann for several years. The media and the public were fascinated by her story. Several biographers have written about her. The first was written in 1857 by the Reverend Royal B. Stratton.

Olive’s Later Years

Olive married married John B. Fairchild in November of 1865 and adopted a daughter, Mamie. They made their home in Sherman, Texas. Olive died on March 21, 1903 at age 65 of a heart attack.

In 1909 a small town in Arizona along Route 66 changed its name to Oatman in her honor.


Rumors abounded that Olive was raped during her captivity, a charge she always vehemently denied, "To the honor of these savages, let it be said they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me." 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 defenseless situation [was] entirely respected during her residence among the Indians." There is an unsubstantiated rumor that Olive was married to the son of the Mojave chief and that she gave birth to two boys when married to him. The Arizona Republican in Phoenix, dated 30 April 1922, reported “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."


Several books have been written about Olive and the character of Eva, a prostitute, played by Robin McLeavy in AMC’s Hell on Wheels is loosely based on Olive’s life. AMC prefers the spicier accounts.


Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    2 years ago

    This is a great historical story. I was thinking that the hash marks on her dress seem to complement he face.

  • profile image

    Jeff Cuneo 

    3 years ago

    A good write and accurate as can be expected. I go to the massacre site and the campsite often and am in the process of analyzing her handwriting as I study and compare the various writings. She had great handwriting which I have access to alot of it. Some info can never be known for sure and alot requires cross referencing reports and her own words throughout the years till her death at 65. 40 years or so of writing including her handwritten note she read from during her lectures. A person has to project themselves into the situation to know documented and necessary lies--to get at the true writing which she was a gifted speaker and often in fact ---told the truth. A persons base personality is actually formed quite young. She was "around 13." One thing thats never been done--is to analyze her handwriting. The handwriting says alot and shows the stress and pain of the delayed stress syndrome which also could well be combined with the stress of "living with a lie". The toughest one for her clearly had to be living with the lie that "she and Mary Ann were married OR EQUIVALENT".

  • profile image


    5 years ago

    It's amazing what you learn. Such a visible tattoo must have been difficult to bear in society at that time.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you Hendrika.

  • Hendrika profile image


    5 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

    Very interesting. It is amazing the mistakes people make and the price their families pay for it, even though the mistakes were made in what they believed were the best for their family.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you! I can glad you liked it.

  • B Lucy profile image

    B Lucy 

    5 years ago from Podunk, Virginia

    What a great and informative article . . . thanks for sharing!!!

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you; that makes me happy.

  • ecogranny profile image

    Kathryn Grace 

    5 years ago from San Francisco

    Fascinating story! This is one I've not heard before, and I thank you for teaching me something new today.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from South Carolina

    And where is your writing?

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Proofread before publishing. Sorry to be a grammar Nazi but no one will take your work seriously if it appears that you don't care enough to review before you post. It's LATTER Day Saints, not LADDER. And your verb tenses are inconsistent -- pick one, past or present, and stick with it.

    Other than that, interesting -- I like finding out that the Hell on Wheels character is based on a real person.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you!

  • sprickita profile image


    6 years ago from Reno

    wow ... great hub im interested... ty

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you mercuryservices and Kevin for reading and the comments.

  • Kevin Peter profile image

    Kevin Peter 

    7 years ago from Global Citizen

    Olive Oatman's story touched my heart. It's really very sad that a young girl had to suffer all these in such a young age. Great hub!

  • mercuryservices profile image

    Alex Munkachy 

    7 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

    Something interesting that I would like to read more about.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from South Carolina

    I am glad you liked it. It is a very interesting story. I stumbled on some information about her when I was researching tattoos and I had to write about it.

  • Mel Carriere profile image

    Mel Carriere 

    7 years ago from San Diego California

    Don't be sorry. People are just nit-picking here. Your stuff is fascinating. I am a big an of Western history, having grown up in most of the Southwest, starting with my birthplace in El Paso Texas through Albuquerque, N.M., Mesa Az., and now San Diego CA. This is an aspect of Western History I was unfamiliar with, and you enlightened me. I have driven by the town of Oatman, and now I know the story.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from South Carolina

    In America. Sorry, I should have been more specific.

  • profile image

    Acid Moon 

    7 years ago

    The first white woman to get a tattoo? Are you kidding? Have you never heard of the Picts?

    The Gauls, goths, scots, Tuetons? Caucasians have been tattooing for thousands of years.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from South Carolina

    Sorry, I meant Randy, not Rand.

  • Tess45 profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from South Carolina

    Thank you Rand and point2make for reading and the votes up. I literally stumbled across her and had to find out more.

  • point2make profile image


    8 years ago

    Fascinating hub. I was not aware of the full story behind Olive Oatman. Thank-you for the information...it fills in some gaps that I had. Voted this hub up!

  • Randy Godwin profile image

    Randy Godwin 

    8 years ago from Southern Georgia

    Interesting tale! Quite an ordeal these girls must have experienced during their capture. Rated up!



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