In 1855, a 19-year-old girl named Olive Oatman caused a big stir in Arizona. The daughter of white settlers murdered on their way to California, she emerged from years of being a captive of the Mohave tribe with a startling 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 followed by a display of the incredible strength of the human spirit. The American public was fascinated by her, 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 the 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
In the days of the Oregon Trail, Westward travelers were exposed to serious danger - but many of them packed up and left the East regardless. Along with the various stages of the 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 the plains and desert, passing through Native American tribal lands, it was only a matter of time before conflict broke out. 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 Brutally Massacred In A Raid
The Oatman family, consisting of Royce, Mary, and their seven children, made their way from Illinois to Missouri to join up with some of their 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, they became separated from the other families and were attacked in Arizona. A group of Native Americans slaughtered the Oatman family, leaving four of the seven children and both parents dead. 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.
She 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 were 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 this, but it's unlikely that the name of the tribe made any difference to 14-year-old Olive and 7-year-old Mary Ann at the time. After their family members were killed and they 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 their 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. They were given tattoos, the souvenir that Olive would carry for the rest of her life. Some claim that the tattoos marked them as slaves, but the truth was that it was a Mohave tradition and possibly was done to signify their membership in the tribe.