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Olive Oatman: More Than the Girl With the Chin Tattoo

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I have been an online writer for more than eight years. I cover a variety of historical topics.

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 Illinois in1837 to Mormons Royce and Mary Ann Oatman. She was one of 10 siblings. 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 with the church’s leadership. He led a group of 52 families to California, which he believed to be the "intended place of gathering" for the Mormons.

The Journey Begins

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 Royce Oatman– having taken command of the other half of the group–led them south through Socorro, Santa Cruz, and Tucson.

This turned out to be a mistake. The group made it to 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 lead his wife and children 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. Though it is still unclear how exactly the attack occurred, sources say that it was likely the Tolkepayas or Western Yavapais that brutally murdered all but three of the family members. Olive, her sister Mary Ann, and their brother Lorenzo were the only ones to survive (Lorenzo was wounded and left for dead).

Life in Captivity

Olive, 13, and her sister Mary Ann, 7, were captured by their attackers and were taken to 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 Mojave traded two horses, vegetables, and blankets for the girls. The Mojaves took them on a 10-day journey to the Colorado River and the Mojave village, which today is Needles, California.

Adopted by the Mojaves

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

After his family was attacked back in the 1850s, Lorenzo found his way back to the original group and immediately started searching for his surviving sisters. Supposedly, Lorenzos efforts were worth it, as he was eventually able to track down his sister's whereabouts.

When Olive was 19 (five years after her kidnapping), 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 cheered her arrival. Olive was reunited with her brother.

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 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.

What is merely a historical footnote for the Mohaves has become a lovingly burnished, ever-evolving myth for white Americans. A hundred and fifty years after Oatman’s return, writers—amateur and professional, religious and scholarly—continue to rework it, invariably reflecting their own cultural fantasies as vividly as Oatman’s particular experience.

— Margot Mifflin, author of The Blue Tattoo


As the quote above states, many rumors have abounded about Olive's experience since her return. Because this story is so old, and has been picked up and reworked by so many different sources, it is hard to know how much of the information regarding Olive's experience is actually true.

  • Rumors that Olive was raped during her captivity were started, which 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 Mojave county . . . in Oatman Court of Domestic Relations when John Oatman, wealthy Mojave 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.

Now you know the story of Olive Oatman, who was not only just the girl with the chin tattoo. She had one of the most tragic, unique, and memorable life experiences in American history. See the video below to learn even more.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Bevalina on August 16, 2017:

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

Jeff Cuneo on June 02, 2017:

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".

reasonablerobby on November 08, 2014:

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

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on October 28, 2014:

Thank you Hendrika.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on October 27, 2014:

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 (author) from South Carolina on September 01, 2014:

Thank you! I can glad you liked it.

B Lucy from Podunk, Virginia on August 31, 2014:

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

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on August 24, 2014:

Thank you; that makes me happy.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on August 24, 2014:

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

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on April 19, 2014:

And where is your writing?

jjsjpc on April 18, 2014:

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 (author) from South Carolina on November 17, 2013:

Thank you!

sprickita from Reno on November 17, 2013:

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

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on May 23, 2013:

Thank you mercuryservices and Kevin for reading and the comments.

Kevin Peter from Global Citizen on May 23, 2013:

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!

Alex Munkachy from Honolulu, Hawaii on May 22, 2013:

Something interesting that I would like to read more about.

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on May 22, 2013:

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 from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 22, 2013:

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 (author) from South Carolina on December 14, 2012:

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

Acid Moon on December 13, 2012:

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 (author) from South Carolina on May 08, 2012:

Sorry, I meant Randy, not Rand.

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on May 08, 2012:

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

point2make on May 08, 2012:

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

Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on May 08, 2012:

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