Olive Oatman: More Than the Girl with the Chin Tattoo
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.
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.