[Photo: Ancestry]
The girl with the tattooed face became something of a legend, but she started out as an ordinary girl.

Olive Oatman and her younger sister, Mary Ann, were kidnapped by Indians in 1851. They eventually ended up living with a tribe of the Mojave, where they were both tattooed with distinctive blue markings on their chins.

  • 14-Day Free Trial
    GIVE ME ACCESS

Mary Ann died during a famine (along with many of the Mojave). Olive survived, though, and eventually returned to live among her own people again. There she told her remarkable story that started when her parents, Royce and Mary Oatman, packed up their seven kids in 1850 and left their Illinois farm for Missouri, where they joined a wagon train headed to California. Olive was 14 and Mary Ann was 7.

When some of the travelers splintered off, the Oatmans found themselves traveling without the safety of the group. They continued on and were spending a night on the banks of the swollen Gila River, in what is now Arizona, when they were attacked by Indians. (Olive later identified them as Apaches, but some think they may have been a branch of the Yavapai.)

Royce and Mary Oatman were killed, along with four of their seven children. At the end of it all, only Olive, Mary Ann, and their brother Lorenzo, age 15, were still alive.

Lorenzo had been clubbed and left for dead, but he eventually came to and found his way to a settlement, where his wounds were treated. Then he retraced his steps and found and buried his family’s bodies. In 1954, a marker was erected at their burial site by the Arizona society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It reads, “In memory of the Oatman Family, Six members of this pioneer family massacred by Indians in March 1851.”

Lorenzo found no trace of Olive and Mary Ann, but he kept looking.

The girls had been taken by the Indians who killed their parents, and according to Olive, they were mistreated as slaves for about a year. Then they were traded to a group of Mojave, who treated the girls better. The Mojave chief and his wife may even have adopted the girls.

While living with the Mojave, Olive and her sister got the distinctive tattoo markings on their chins. Westerners who study the tribe say this is a fairly common tattoo among the Mojave that is done ritualistically to ensure a good afterlife. Olive said it was done to mark them as slaves.

It was probably the drought and famine of 1855 that took Mary Ann’s life. She was 12 that year, and Olive was 19. Around that time, the white communities in the region began to hear about a white woman living among the Mojave. One sent a messenger asking for Olive’s return, and intense negotiations took place. Olive was eventually sent to Fort Yuma, where she learned that her brother Lorenzo had been searching for her and Mary Ann.

Ancestry tells us where she went from there: In the 1860 U.S. Census, you see Olive living in the household of the Stratton family. In fact, the head of household, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton, wrote a book about Olive’s (and Mary Ann’s) experiences. Royalties from the biography he titled “Life Among the Indians,” which was a bestseller, paid for Olive’s and Lorenzo’s education at the University of the Pacific. Olive lectured and spoke on her “life among the Indians” extensively to promote the book.

In 1865, Olive married cattleman John B. Fairchild, listed in census records as a money broker and later a banker. In 1870, when Olive was 32 and John was 40, he owned real estate worth $2,500 and had a personal estate valued at $10,000, which was off the charts compared to others in their neighborhood (it’s amazing what you can learn from the census). In 1880, their daughter, Mary, was seven. In the 1900 census, still in Texas, their daughter is 26, and a 30-year-old cook lives with them, as well a 4-year-old boy with a different last name, perhaps the cook’s son.

Olive suffered from depression and once spent three months in a “medical spa.” She died from a heart attack in 1903, and her husband passed away in 1907; both are buried in Sherman, Texas. The town of Oatman, Arizona, was named for her family. So they — along with Olive’s amazing story — live on.

Discover your family story. Start free trial.