Olive Oatman’s historic photo stands as one of the most shared in history. It features her with a strange tattoo in the vicinity of her mouth and chin. While the photo has been seen by millions of eyes over the years, very few have a clue as to what the photo actually means and who Oatman was during her fascinating lifetime.
She was born in Illinois in 1837 to Royce and Mary Oatman. The couple had seven children, and in 1850 decided to join in a wagon train from Utah to California. At one point in their journey, the family decided to travel alone. Rumor has it the family decided to go it alone because of some arguments that arose as they wagon train adventured through the wilderness.
One day the Oatman family was attacked by a group of Native Americans. Olive thought they were Apaches, but history has revealed it may have been the Yavapai people, a tribe that thrived in Arizona. Yavapai means “people of the sun,” and the tribe occupied about 20,000 square-miles of land.
The attack on the Oatman’s saw only three family members survive. Olive’s parents and four of her siblings were killed. Her brother Lorenzo was clubbed and left for dead. He was eventually able to find his way to the original wagon train.
Olive and her sister Mary Ann were abducted by the tribe. At that time Olive was 14 and Mary Ann was seven. Their captors made them slaves and then a year later they were traded to the Mohave tribe. It has long been assumed that the Mohave leader and his wife adopted the girls.
And this is where Olive’s mysterious tattoo comes into the play… the Mohave tattooed both of the girls’ chins. Later in life, Olive claimed the tattoos marked them as slaves, but experts are of the opinion that such tattoos were quite common in the tribe.
Around 1855, there was a massive drought. Mary Ann and several Mohaves died of starvation. Also at this time, European communities had learned that there were white women living with the Mohaves. A messenger was sent to the Mohave village asking for Olive to be returned to them.
Intense negotiations took place between the Europeans and the tribe, and finally Olive was allowed to travel to Fort Yuma. Once she arrived at the fort, Olive asked for Western style clothing.
She also discovered that her brother Lorenzo was looking for her. At 19-years-old, Olive became a celebrity. Her popularity led Royal B. Stratton to write a book about Olive and Mary Ann’s life as captives. It quickly became a bestseller and was able to fund Olive and Lorenzo’s education.
In 1865, Olive Married John B. Fairchild. He was a strong-willed cattleman who decided Olive’s life needed to become “normal.” After the couple adopted a baby girl, Fairchild burned all copies of Stratton’s book and stopped Olive from going on speaking tours.
Later in life Olive traveled to New York to have discussions with a Mohave leader about her former life. She always kept a jar of hazelnuts with her as a reminder of her life with the Mohave tribe.