Olive Oatman: The Story That Will Not Die

Olive Oatman was thirteen years old in February 1851 when, traveling west with her family in a covered wagon, she was seized by Indians on a bluff above the Gila River and whisked away as a captive, thought by many to have died or to have been held in abject slavery. Six of her family members—all but her brother Lorenzo and her younger sister Mary Ann, who was taken captive with her—were brutally clubbed to death and left behind to rot in the sun. Then, early in 1856, she suddenly appeared at the U.S. Army post at Fort Yuma, at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. Although Mary Ann had died, Olive was a strong young woman, sun-bronzed and healthy. And her chin was adorned with a mysterious tattoo that some took as evidence that she had been held as an Indian slave and others saw as proof that she had been accepted into the life of the Mohave tribe.


Accompanied by her brother, who had escaped to freedom among the whites, Olive spent some time in Southern California with members of the wagon train she had been taken from, then moved on to Oregon where she lived with some of her father’s cousins. Then in 1857, her name was again thrust into the ranks of celebrities with the publication in San Francisco of a book about her capture and that of her younger sister, Mary Ann. Written by a Methodist minister named Royal Stratton, the book was penned in purple prose and filled with mountains of exaggeration and some outright misrepresentation. It quickly became a best seller, with successive printings, first in San Francisco, and then in New York.

For almost ten years, Olive traveled the lecture circuit of Methodist churches east of the Mississippi. As audiences stared in awe at her chin tattoo, she regaled them with tales of her Indian captivity, most all drawn from the pages of Stratton’s book. At the end of her talks, she sold copies of the book.


In 1864, Olive made a special visit to New York City to greet Irataba, one of the leaders of the Mohave tribe, who had been brought east to see firsthand what life was like among the whites. Meeting him at the elegant Metropolitan Hotel, Olive asked him for news of the tribesmen and tribeswomen she had lived among before leaving for Fort Yuma. And, in Mohave fashion, she and Irataba extended their “left hand in friendship.” This, Olive noted, was “held as a sacred pledge, among some tribes.”


In the meantime, Olive met a prosperous white rancher and investor named John Brant Fairchild, whom she married in late 1865. As Olive and her husband settled into a life of comfortable privacy in Sherman, Texas, Fairchild tried to suppress memories of the life she had lived with the Indians, buying as many copies of Stratton’s book as he could lay his hands on and destroying them. But he could not find them all. Olive died of natural causes in Sherman in 1903. Many had by that time forgotten about her, and about the lurid tales Stratton had told about her. Some whispered that she had died in an insane asylum, though there was no truth to that myth.


For nearly a century, Olive Oatman’s story lay half-forgotten. A few magazine and newspaper articles were published, and a couple of poorly researched books. They were laced with misinformation, most dragged from Stratton’s pages. They attracted little interest, however, until the 1990s, when I came on the story and discovered how very little was known about the true facts of the Oatman story.


So I decided to try to discover them. As I searched, questions constantly arose. Why was the Oatman family traveling west in 1851? And why did they reach the banks of the Gila River without any other travelers with them? Who were the Indians who attacked the Oatman family there? Why did the Indians attack the family, killing almost all of them, except two young girls that they carried away into captivity, and Olive’s brother Lorenzo, who was badly injured but managed to make it back to other whites? How and why did the attacking Indians trade the white girls to the Mohaves, with whom they lived for several years? When was Olive Oatman tattooed? And what was the significance of her tattoos? Why did Olive make no attempt to rejoin the whites, even when white military expeditions came through the Mohave Valley, close to where she lived? What was Olive’s life like after she returned to the whites in 1856, and before she died in 1903?


I like finding the true facts of an important and poorly understood story, tracing the evidence like a detective––or a trial attorney, as I once was––preparing for a case. When I read a book of history, I want to know that the history is factually correct—not fancied up by a fiction writer who wants to give readers a few hours of entertainment but not tell them anything real about our past. History is a great teacher, but only if we learn its true facts.


I started my research by traveling throughout Arizona, hunting for evidence that would help me piece together the true Oatman story. I visited scholarly research centers in Arizona and California (the Bancroft Library in Berkeley chief among them). I went to Vermont and visited the town in which Olive’s father, Roys Oatman, was born. I went to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Rev. Royal Stratton spent his last days and scrounged through the records of the church he was the pastor of there. I visited the Beinecke Library at Yale and obtained original photographs of Olive and her brother, Lorenzo. I visited the soaring New York State Library in Albany, which contains information about the short time Olive lived in that state. I visited Rochester, New York, where Olive married John Brant Fairchild. I visited the Abbott family in Morrison, Illinois, relatives of the Oatmans, who generously made original letters relating to Olive and her white family available for my copying. I went to historic Mormon sites associated with the Oatman story in New York, in Ohio, in Illinois, and in Missouri. I went to La Harpe, Illinois, where the Oatman family lived before they set out across the plains as members of the dissident Mormon Church headed up by a boy-prophet named James Colin Brewster. I visited the home town of the Fairchilds and took pictures of their graves. I visited Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Lorenzo spent his last years as a prominent and respected citizen. I made a special trip to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, which generously made original letters relating to Olive available for my inspection and study. I traveled over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, into the valley of the Santa Cruz River in southern Arizona, then followed the trail of the Oatman family along the Gila River all the way to Fort Yuma, gathering all the information I could about the Oatman family’s tragic western journey. And I visited the home of the Mohave Indians along the Colorado River.


What did I learn? Many things. Among the most notable discoveries was the identity of the Indians who attacked the Oatman family. They were not Apaches, as Rev. Stratton repeated over and over again, but Yavapais, who occupied the land on which the attack took place and had villages nearby where they could take Olive and Mary Ann. Why did Olive have such an unhappy life in her later years—a life characterized by bitter sadness, detailed in letters she wrote? Was it something about her Indian captivity? Or possibly about the years she lived with the Mohave Indians? And did Olive have a child or children when she lived with the Mohaves? There were many reports that she did, and that she was forced to leave the children behind when she left the Mohaves and went to rejoin the whites at Fort Yuma.


It was in 2005 that my book, The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival, was published. There were other books about Olive—one that was composed entirely of plagiarized text taken from Stratton’s book and another that provided interesting details about Olive’s tattoos (she was tattooed on her arms as well as on her chin, though her arm tattoos were almost always covered with long sleeves). The book that went into Olive’s tattoos, written by the accomplished journalist and writer Margot Mifflin, argued very strongly that she had no children when she lived among the Mohaves. I did not reach the same conclusion in my book, instead detailing historical reports that she did, but reviewing conflicting evidence indicating that she did not. I still believe, as I did when I researched and wrote my book, that this fascinating question has never been definitively answered, and that further probing into it is called for.


And so the story of Olive Oatman lives on. It is a story that deserves to live on—for it tells us much about white and Indian relations in American history, and much about the feeling of whites toward people who do not share their skin color, their history, or their religious beliefs. Yes, for many good reasons, it will not die––and probably will not for many years to come.