Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Recently I watched part of a western show on television that featured a woman who had been enslaved by Indians when she was young. The Indians had tattooed her chin with blue cactus ink, making her an object of scorn in the eyes of the white people once she was freed. The woman in the show became a harlot to survive.
My curiosity kicked in, as usual. (My husband is always amazed at my seemingly unending need to ferret out information about most everything.) In this case, I wondered if that had really happened—if some woman had been captured and tattooed and turned into a prostitute. Turns out yes. . .and no. The character in the show is loosely based on a real woman named Olive Oatman, and yes, she was captured and tattooed, but the prostitution is strictly in the imagination of the television show's writers.

In March, 1851, fourteen-year-old (age depends on what article you read) Olive Oatman camped with her family on the shore of the Gila River in what is now Arizona.  Her father, Royse, had made the difficult choice to press on toward California instead of staying in the Pima Villages, whose people were suffering from a bad harvest and few supplies.

The family of eight, including Olive, her mother, her sister Mary Ann, and five other siblings, were hungry and exhausted. As the sun set, a band of Indians approached. They asked for tobacco and food, and sat down to smoke with Mr. Oatland.
Suddenly the Indians jumped up, yelling. With clubs, they beat to death Royse Oatman, his wife, and four of the children. One brother, Lorenzo, was beaten senseless, but lived. Olive and Mary Ann were taken captive by the Indians.

The Indians took the girls to their village some 60-100 miles from the site of the attack. The girls were used as slaves, performing menial tasks such as lugging water and firewood. In later years, Olive said the Indians were Apaches, but given where they lived, they were more likely Tolkepayas.
After a year with the Tolkapayas, a group of Mohave Indians visited the village and traded with the tribe for the girls. The Mohaves took Olive and Mary Ann to their village in what in today Needles, California. There, the girls were treated as part of the tribe. Both girls were tattooed on their chins and arms in what most think is keeping with the tribal custom for tribal members. (Olive later claimed it was a sign that she was a slave of the tribe. Historians disagree.)

During a drought (according to climate records it may have been 1855), the tribe suffered food shortages. Mary Ann died of starvation, at the age of ten or eleven.
When Olive was nineteen, a messenger arrived bearing a request from the authorities at Fort Yuma. They’d heard rumors of a white girl living with the Mohaves, and they wanted her returned to her people. At first the Mohaves resisted, but threatened with reprisal, they parted with Olive.

Eventually Olive was reunited with her brother. In November 1865, she married cattleman John B. Fairchild, and they adopted a daughter. Olive died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903, at the age of 65. She is buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.
Many rumors surround her life, from the fact that she’d been married and had children with a Mohave man, to her being committed to a mental institution and that she suffered a form of post traumatic stress syndrome. 

You can find more information at the following sites:


  1. I love the tidbits you dig up, Candice! Fascinating. Lots of legends swirling about this woman, aren't there?

  2. Shannon, yes. I was really surprised to see how many legends there were about this woman. And while she was alive, she seemed to spread the confusion. I can't even imagine the stuff she went through. Watching her parents die, being kidnapped. Makes my bad days look like nothing.


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