#ThrowbackThursday: The Abduction of Olive Oatman

Olive Ann Oatman was just an 11-year-old girl in the summer of 1849 when her father, Royse Oatman, a former farmer and store-owner from New York, decided to relocate her, her mother, her three sisters and her three brothers to the New Mexico Territory (now Arizona). Royse Oatman could not have known the tragic and horrific fate that would befall his family, and so with a mind to forge a better life for them, he and his family joined a colony of Brewsterite Mormons planning to settle in the Yuma area.

Some 50 colonists, including the Oatman clan, gathered at Independence, Mo. in the Spring of 1850. They’d organized a wagon train under James Brewster and on August 10, embarked on  their perilous journey down the Santa Fe Trail. It didn’t take long for dissension to cause confusion and conflict among the wayfarers and to cause the group to split. Eight of the wagons now followed the Rio Grande-Gila route with Royse Oatman at the helm. With a shift in his objective and a new determination to go to California, Oatman led his party with little mercy. They rode long and hard under the sun’s oppressive heat and atop the unruly terrain, and when several of his oxen collapsed from exhaustion and members of the crew wanted to stop and rest, Oatman forged on with his family, fearing that his stock would perish before reaching California.

The Oatmans had been traveling for nearly a year by March 18, 1851. The family was moving along the Gila River (later known as Oatman flat) when some 19 Yavapai  attacked them. They were eighty miles from Fort Yuma. Young Olive, now thirteen, watched in horror as her mother, father, brothers and sisters were bludgeoned in their heads with war clubs until they died. Only she and her sister, Mary Ann, aged seven, were spared. Her brother Lorenzo, fifteen, was left for dead but managed to escape.

Olive and Mary Ann were abducted and brought to a Yavapai rancheria where they were “made to be drudges for the village and often beaten. In their new lives the young girls were expected to bring wood, tend fires, gather grass seeds” and perform other tasks. A year past and the Yavapai sold the Oatman sisters to some visiting Mohaves, who took them on foot to their village on the Colorado River north of Bill Williams Fort. “The Mohave lived in better shelters than the Yavapai’s wickiups and they treated the sisters with more kindness– providing them with ground on which to grow wheat, corn, and melons. [Historians] have found evidence that the girls were reasonably happy in their captivity.”

Olive and Mary Ann were both marked with blue tattoos on their chins, a tattoo that all Mohave women wore. Tattoos were a way of identifying people in the afterlife.

“[They] pricked the skin in small regular rows on our chins with a very sharp stick, until they bled freely,” Olive would later write.

A drought plagued the region in 1853 causing crops to dry up and many Indians to starve. Young Mary Ann grew too weak to accompany Olive on her hunts for seeds, roots and other grains and she died. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Oatman, who’d been left for dead during his family’s massacre had been rescued by Maricopa Indians and they returned him to the white families who had stayed behind when his father insisted on moving towards California. They took him to Fort Yuma and immediately began a frantic effort to trace his sister’s whereabouts and rescue her. His efforts were successful and on Feb. 22, 1856 the Fort Yuma Commandant sent Fransisco, a Yuma Indian who helped trace Olive Oatman to the village in Mohave Valley, to arrange for her release. She was released and brought to the post.

Olive had assimilated so well into Mohave culture during the four years that she lived among them that she had nearly forgotten English. But after returning to the east to live with relatives in Albany, NY and attending school, she quickly regained her mother tongue.  She shared her story with a California Clergyman, the Rev. Royal B. Stratton, who chronicled her experience in a book called Life Among the Indians; Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls (1857). She also used her voice to share her harrowing story, giving lectures on her captivity and on customs of the Native Americans. Olive eventually married John B. Fairchild in 1865 and relocated to Sherman, Texas. She remained there until her death in 1903.

Olive Oatman’s legacy lives on and can be seen as an historical  counterpart for the character of Eva on AMC’s popular drama @HellOnWheelsAMC!

Source: Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary; The Belknap Press of Harvard Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England; 1971- Radcliffe College.

9 Responses to “#ThrowbackThursday: The Abduction of Olive Oatman”

  1. Ann Stone says:


  2. The story of Olive Oatman is more complex than what you’ve presented here. Also, your entry replicates the cultural work of Oatman’s captivity narrative — i.e. it characterizes the Mohave as “savages” thereby justifying U.S. Indian policy. See _The Blue Tattoo : The Life of Olive Oatman_ by Margot Mifflin (University of Nebraska, 2009).

  3. NWHM says:

    Dear Knitting Clio,

    Thank you very much for your comment. Our intent in writing the article was to share the historical events that occurred in the life of a 13-year-old girl. It was not our intent to characterize the Mohave as “savages.” Thank you for your book suggestion! We will check it out.

  4. Mesuki58 says:

    Thanks for posting!! I love history, and I really enjoyed reading this article!!

  5. Ruth says:

    Interesting piece, I have ancestral stories in my family related to our family tattoo relevant to Maori – Pacific culture, I also have american indian connections through my father born in Canada so find all these stories interesting to reflect on especially the dates of such recent activity and biography. thankyou

  6. NWHM says:

    Mesuki58, we’re so glad that you enjoyed reading the article! Don’t forget to check back for our future posts.

  7. NWHM says:

    Dear Ruth,

    We’re glad that you enjoyed reading the article. Thanks for sharing your story! Don’t forget to check back for future posts.

  8. Michelle says:

    OMG! This is the lady the character, Eva, from AMC’s TV series, Hell On Wheels, comes from!

  9. Barbara Horn says:

    It is fascinating to know the real story behind the story.

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