Olive Oatman Fairchild


Joseph Smith Jr. (1805 – 1844) was an American religious leader and founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saints movement.  Smith was born in Vermont, but by 1817, he had moved with his family to Western New York, which was the site of fundamental religious revivalism during the so-called Second Great Awakening. His book, the Book of Mormon, attracted thousands of followers and established a religion that exists today with millions of adherents.

Smith claimed to have experienced a series of visions, including those which he said involved the presence of God and Jesus Christ, and another three years later in which an angel directed him to the location of a buried book of golden plates, an inscribed Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization.  An English translation of this work was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.  In that same year, Smith organized the Church of Christ — referring to it as a restoration of the earlier Christian church.  The people affiliated with this church were called “Latter-Day Saints” and “Mormons.”

In 1831, Smith and his followers moved west, planning to establish a commune.  They first gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and founded an outpost in Independence, Missouri.  During this period, Smith sent out missionaries, published revelations, and supervised the construction of the Kirtland Temple.  Violent skirmishes with non-Mormon citizens resulted in the Mormon Extermination Order.[1]  Smith and his followers relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, becoming a spiritual and political leader.  When normal society criticized Smith and his Mormons for their polygamy, Smith ordered local printing presses destroyed.  Joseph Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois.

For roughly six months after Smith’s death, several people competed to assume Smith’s role as leader of the Mormon movement — including Brigham Young, James Strang, and Sidney Rigdon.  Most Mormons voted to follow Young, but several smaller groups emerged, creating permanent schisms in the movement.

Hazen Aldrich, an ordained priest within the Mormon Church, joined the group led by James Strang but was excommunicated from the church because of alleged acts of incest.  Aldrich then formed with another group known as Whitmerites.  When that sect died out, Aldrich joined James C. Brewster to create another group called Brewsterites.  Aldrich became president of this group in 1849.  In August 1850, James Brewster led 85 of his followers (including Hazen Aldrich’s pregnant daughter, Betsey Aldrich Wilder) from Independence, Missouri, to the Southwest territories.  Inadequate preparation for such a journey and a lack of adequate resupply points along the trail led to disagreements among these religious pilgrims.

One of the dissenting families of the Brewsterite group was the Oatman’s, who decided to split off from the main group near the old town of Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.  The Oatman family, led by Royce Oatman, moved south toward Socorro and Tucson in southern Arizona.  When the Oatman party reached Maricopa Wells, local citizens warned them not to proceed.  The trail was barren and dangerous, and the Indians inhabiting the country were extremely hostile toward whites.  Several families traveling with the Oatmans decided to split off and remain in Maricopa Wells, leaving the Oatman family to proceed independently.  Around 90 or so miles from Yuma (present-day Arizona), the Indians attacked.  It was a bloody massacre.

The Oatman’s

Olive Oatman Fairchild

Olive Ann Oatman (1837-1903) was born in Illinois.  After the Yavapai murdered her family, she and her sister Mary Ann were enslaved and held for one year before being traded to the Mohave people (indigenous to the area of the Colorado River in Arizona).  The Indians in this region always suffered from a lack of food.  Mary Ann starved to death within a year of her captivity; Olive remained a captive of the Mohave Indians for another four years.

Olive’s memoirs and speeches fueled books, plays, films, and poetry. The story of the massacre was retold many times and gained more drama with each telling. We understand, and to anyone daring to suggest that Miss Oatman went out of her way to criticize her captors, let us for a moment take a good look at her face.  There was not a day that went by during the rest of her life where she was not reminded of her ordeal — and let us acknowledge that it was no great honor to become the first American white woman to have her face tattooed by American Indians.

There is much about that ordeal that Olive never shared with anyone, but here’s what we do know.  After arriving at the Yavapai village, the girls (age 14 and 7) were treated threateningly, and Olive later said that she was sure she and Mary Ann would be killed.  The Yavapai women enslaved them, sent out for food, to lug water, and collect firewood.  When the girls failed to please the tribal women, the squaws beat them severely with sticks.

Olive said that other Indians visited the village to trade; they were Mohave Indians.  Topeka, the daughter of the Mohave chief Espaniole, saw that the Yavapai mistreated the white girls, and she wanted to make a trade for the girls.  Initially, the Yavapai refused to consider trading the white girls, but eventually, they relented and made the trade for horses, vegetables, and some blankets.  When the transaction was made, the Mohave took Olive and Mary Ann to Needles, California (along the Colorado River).  Olive became very close to Topeka and her mother, Aespaneo, and spoke kindly of them throughout her life.

Aespaneo arranged for Olive and Mary Ann to have a plot of land to farm.  From this, we presume that Olive was fully adopted into the Mohave tribe — which explains Olive’s tribal name, “Oach,” and her nickname (and I’ll have to let your imagination take over from here): Spantsa, which means unquenchable lust.  Another indication of Olive’s assimilation into the Mohave tribe is that when a group of whites visited the Mohave village, Olive made no attempt to contact them for help in leaving the tribe.

However, one inconsistency in Olive’s accounting is that she claimed that her facial tattoos marked her as an enslaved woman.  Anthropologists discount this story, however.  They claim that the tribal members were tattooed as a part of a life-after-death belief — such that they would reach the land of the dead unmolested and that such steps would not have been taken on behalf of a slave.  Additionally, anthropologists point to the evenness of Olive’s tattoo … claiming that the tattoo does not in any way suggest that Olive resisted having the marking.

In the 1860s, Olive Oatman spoke of Mary Ann having developed a death wish to join her mother and father in the other world.  Mary Ann died from starvation while living with the Mohave (c. 1855-56) when Mary Ann would have been 10 or 11 years old.  Not realizing that her brother Lorenzo was still alive, Olive regarded the Mohave as her only family after Mary Ann died.

Olive was 19-years old when an Indian messenger arrived at the Mohave village from Fort Yuma.  White authorities understood that the Mohave tribe held a captive white woman, and the post commander requested that they return this woman to white society.  Initially, the Mohave denied the presence of any white girl in the village.  The Indian messenger, whose name was Francisco, warned the Mohave about lying to the white soldiers, and this prompted the Mohave to enter into a negotiation with Francisco on behalf of the Commanding Officer at Fort Yuma.

Free at Last

Eventually, the Mohave accepted the trade and escorted Olive to Fort Yuma, a twenty-day journey.  Before arriving at the fort, Olive was dressed as a white woman to cover her exposed breasts.  Olive reunited with her childhood friend, Susan Thompson, Inside the fort.  Susan later stated that she believed Olive arrived at Fort Yuma grieving because she had to give up her husband and two male children in returning to white society.  Olive, however, denied that she had ever been married or sexually active.  Her nickname, however, suggests a different story.

Within a few days of her arrival at Fort Yuma, Olive learned that her brother Lorenzo was alive.  The story made headlines from coast to coast.  This popularity led a preacher named Royal B. Stratton to seek Olive and Lorenzo out to tell their story in a book titled Life Among the Indians.  The book sold some 30,000 copies — a best seller for that time.  Stratton used the book’s proceeds to pay the tuition for Olive and Lorenzo to attend the University of the Pacific in 1857.  They also accompanied Stratton on an across-country book tour, and through this, Olive became a curiosity, and her lectures made her one of America’s first female public speakers.

In November 1865, Olive Oatman married Major John B. Fairchild (1830-1907), a cattleman.  Fairchild had lost his brother to an Indian attack during a cattle drive in Arizona in 1854 when Olive lived with the Mohave.  After their marriage, John and Olive moved to Sherman, Texas.  John prospered by creating and managing the City Bank of Sherman; the couple lived quietly in a large Victorian house in the nicest neighborhood of the city.  John and Olive never had a child, but they did adopt a little girl whom they named Mary Elizabeth (nicknamed Mamie).[2]

Lorenzo Oatman died on 8 October 1901; Olive followed him in death on 20 March 1903, dead of a heart attack at the age of 65.  She was buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman.  In 1915, a mining town was named after the Oatman family in Arizona, but after the gold strike ran out, residents abandoned the town.  Additional Oatman properties include Oatman Mountain, Oatman Flats, and Olive City, Arizona (a steamboat stop on the Colorado River).  The Butterfield Overland Stage made a stop at Oatman Flats Station from 1858 to 1861.


  1. Abanes, R.  One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church.  Thunders Mouth Press, 2003.
  2. McGinty, B.  The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
  3. Quinn, D. M.  Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.  Signature Books, 1994.


[1] Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order following the Battle of Crooked River between Mormons and Missouri State Militia, ordering that either all Mormons be exterminated or driven from the State of Missouri because they made war upon the citizens of Missouri. 

[2] Mary Elizabeth Fairchild Laing (1873-1938) died in Detroit, Michigan. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, California, History, Indenture & Slavery, Massacres, Mormons, New Mexico, Pioneers, Religion, Texas, The Ladies, Yavapai. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Olive Oatman Fairchild

  1. Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    A very fascinating story in our American history forgotten by many. People do not realize how many white women suffered at the hands of not only white men but the Indians. Interestingly I do believe Olive was married to an Indian and had two small children that she did mourn as her friend stated. I imagine that was terrible for her and this was quite the norm of that day. Thank you for reminding us about some of that not so spoken of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

      As an afterthought, people do not know how blessed they are today. Many people of the past suffered immensly. It is sad our society refuses to see that and thank God for the blessings we do have and even some of the luxuries so many take foregranted. Thank God He gave us this day!


    • Mustang says:

      Miss Oatman wouldn’t be the first white female to suffer such an affront. You probably remember the story of Cynthia Anne Parker … a tragedy in more ways than one. The estimates of the numbers of white people killed on the western plain, the number of women and children kidnapped and not returned to their homes, is mind-blowing. The western pioneers didn’t have to make up boogeyman stories. They were real enough in the American southwest.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    You are correct. I am sure I do not need to tell you the story of the family of serial killers, “Bloody Benders.” Crazier back then in some ways but I suppose to some degree it’s no better now. We just have the media telling us all about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy says:

    Olive Oatman is fairly well-known character in history in particular for her distinctive tattoo. However, this article goes beyond the commonplace. It explores her Mormon background and explains in some detail how the lady came to be in the hands of hostiles. Moreover, it looks more deeply into the time she was enslaved and even raises questions about her captivity. Was she married? Did she have children? What was the origin of her odd nickname? These may never be answered, but they must be considered to fully understand this remarkable woman.

    Further, the article examines Olive’s life after she is freed. In short, Mustang, you have given the reader a more comprehensive view of this complex lady. Well-done.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    Reblogged this on PoliticsRewritten and commented:
    If you enjoy reading American history and tales from the past this is an excellent article to begin with. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

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