The Tattooed Pioneer Girl

Kamie Berry | October 6th, 2017

Olive Oatman was only thirteen when her family decided to join a wagon train of fellow Mormons headed for southern California in 1850. She, her parents, and her six siblings set out from their home in Independence, Missouri with about 90 other Mormons on August 5 of that year. Aside from the normal hardships of a pioneering journey, the trip was not expected to be eventful.

The group made it all the way Santa Fe, New Mexico before infighting caused the wagon train to split into two groups. The Oatmans and a few other families took a route that brought them through present-day Arizona. When this breakaway group reached Maricopa Wells, the other families chickened out and decided to stay put, having heard that the Indians on the trail ahead were hostile. But Olive’s father, Royce Oatman, decided to press on towards California with just his family.

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On February 18, 1851, the Oatmans were attacked by a group Yavapai Indians near what is now Yuma, Arizona. Mr. and Mrs. Oatman and four of their children were killed immediately. Their son, Lorenzo, was injured, and Olive and her sister Mary Ann (age 7) were kidnapped.

Lorenzo was able to find help and receive treatment for his injuries. Olive and Mary Ann, however, became slaves to their captors. The girls were forced to perform menial tasks and to forage for food. They were also frequently beaten. This state of affairs lasted for about a year, when the girls were traded to a group of Mojave Indians in exchange for food and horses.

The leader of this Mojave tribe, a man named Espianola, adopted the two girls and gave them their own plots of land to farm. His wife, Aespaneo, and his daughter, Topeka, also became fond of the girls. Both girls were also given traditional chin tattoos, which the Mojave only gave to their own people.

The Oatman girls both remained with the Mojave until 1855, when a severe drought and resulting food shortage killed off many of the Mojave. Among the dead was eleven-year-old Mary Ann Oatman.

In 1856, when Olive was 19, the authorities at nearby Fort Yuma heard that a white girl was living with the Mojave. They requested her return, but the Mojave first denied she was white, then said that they cared too much for Olive to let her go. When informed that white people would destroy them if they did not release Olive, the Mojave decided to part with her in exchange for some horses. Olive was released on February 28, 1856. She was reunited with her brother, Lorenzo, a few days later.

Olive collaborated with an author named Royal Stratton to write about her experiences. She then when on a lecture tour to promote the book. When she wasn’t on tour, she covered her chin tattoo with a veil, and she did not like to talk about her life with the Mojave. She did say, though, that they did not mistreat her.

Olive ended up getting a degree from the University of Pacific, which she paid for with royalties from the book. In 1865, she married a cattleman named John Fairchild, who became quite wealthy from real estate and banking investments. She never had her own children, but she adopted a girl that the Fairchilds named Mamie. She died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1903. A historical marker was placed on her grave in Sherman, Texas in 1969.

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