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.
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.
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.
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.
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.