The Fascinating Story Behind The Girl With The Mohave Tattoo

In 1856, a 19-year-old girl named Olive Oatman caused a big stir in Arizona. The daughter of white settlers who were murdered on their way to California, she emerged from years of being a captive of the Mohave tribe with a striking and distinctive blue tattoo on her chin. So who was Olive Oatman, and how did she come to live with the Mohave? Her story is one of extreme tragedy that also captures the incredible strength of the human spirit.

The American public was fascinated by Olivia Oatman, and the stories of her time as a captive continue to spark interest to this day. Her journey from desert pioneer to orphaned Native American captive left lasting marks on her that went much deeper than a tattoo; it was said that she carried around a Mohave staple, a jar of hazelnuts, for the rest of her life to remind her of her experiences.

  • At The Time, The Desert Was A Place Of Extreme Conflict Between Settlers And Native Americans

    At The Time, The Desert Was A Place Of Extreme Conflict Between Settlers And Native Americans
    Photo: Brickey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the days of the Oregon Trail, travelers headed West were exposed to serious danger, but many of them packed up and left the East anyway. Along with the enticing Gold Rush, there was another promise drawing settlers across the continent: the Mormon holy lands in Utah and California. With so many white travelers crossing through Native American tribal lands in the plains and desert, it was only a matter of time before conflicts started to arise. There were numerous reports of settlers clashing with natives, usually over issues stemming from lack of resources in a part of the country where water and food was already scarce.

  • Most Of Olive's Family Were Killed In A Raid

    In 1850, the Oatman family—Royce, Mary, and their seven children—were making their way from Illinois to Missouri to join up with fellow Mormons. They were members of a branch of the Mormon faith called Brewsterites, who believed that the true Mormon gathering place was in California rather than Utah. 

    While on the extremely dangerous Westward trail in Arizona, they were separated from the other families traveling with them and attacked. A group of Native Americans slaughtered the Oatman family, killing both parents and four of the seven children. Olive's 15-year-old brother Lorenzo was wounded and left for dead, while she and her sister Mary Ann managed to survive mostly unharmed.

  • Olive Oatman And Her Younger Sister Were Kidnapped By The Yavapai

    Although Olive initially identified her kidnappers as Apaches, it is much more likely that the tribe was one of the Yavapai sub-groups. Historians have used clues like how much and how far they traveled as well as what they ate to determine their course, but it's unlikely that the name of the tribe made any difference to 14-year-old Olive and seven-year-old Mary Ann at the time. After the sisters were taken away, they spent a full year living as slaves among the Yavapai.

  • They Were Traded To The Mohave Tribe, Where They Were Given Their Tattoos

    After a year as slaves, Olive and Mary Ann were traded to the Mohaves. They lived a much better life with their new captors, not as slaves but more like adopted tribal members. That's where Olive received the tattoo that she would carry for the rest of her life. Some claim that the tattoos marked them as slaves, but in reality, tattooing of this nature was a Mohave tradition and it may have been done to the girls to signify their membership in the tribe. 

  • Olive And Mary Ann Had Opportunities To Escape, But Didn't

    The two girls seem to have assimilated well among the Mohave, blending in with their new adopted family and forming strong bonds with their new mother and sister. They were treated far better than they were with the Yavapai, and were no longer used as slaves. When a group of around 200 white surveyors came and spent a week with the Mohave, they had many chances to reveal their identities and escape back to white settlements, but they didn't. Some believe that they remained silent because they thought the new family they had had grown accustomed to was all they had left in the world.

  • Mary Ann Died While In Captivity With The Mohaves

    Mary Ann Died While In Captivity With The Mohaves
    Photo: Baker Deb / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Although the two girls lived a relatively comfortable life with the Mohaves, the desert was never without its dangers. In 1855, a drought swept through the region. The resulting famine took the lives of many Mohaves and Mary Ann. Sho would have been around 10 years old.