Olive Oatman was born in Illinois in 1837. In 1850, when she was 14, her family (parents Royce and Mary Oatman and their seven children) joined a wagon train to travel to California.
Various disagreements along the way meant the Oatman family eventually travelled alone.
On the fourth day, the Oatman family was attacked by a group of Native Americans (described by Olive as Apaches, but possibly a branch of the Yavapai people). Only three of the Oatmans survived the attack. Olive’s parents and four children were killed; Olive’s brother Lorenzo was clubbed and left for dead. Lorenzo eventually reached a settlement and rejoined the original wagon train. He found and was able to bury the bodies of his family.
Olive and her sister Mary Ann, then seven years old, were abducted.
Their captors used Olive and Mary as slaves. After a year the girls were traded to a group of Mohave, who were thought to have treated them better. The Mohave leader and his wife may have adopted the girls.
The Mohave tattooed both Olive’s and her sister’s chins. Though Olive later claimed the tattoos marked them as slaves, experts believe tattoos were fairly standard in the Mohave tribe, a tradition that led to a good afterlife.
Around 1855, when Olive was 19, there was a severe drought. Mary Ann died of starvation, along with many Mohaves.
“The Death of Mary Ann at the Indian Camp.” Olive is shown kneeling on the left. From Royal B. Stratton’s “Life among the Indians: Being an interesting narrative of the captivity of the Oatman girls, among the Apache and Mohave Indians.”
IMAGE: THE BANCROFT LIBRARY, BERKELEY
At this time rumors began to surface in European communities of a white woman living with the Mohaves. A messenger arrived at the village asking for Olive’s return, and, after intense negotiations, which Olive was a party to in the later stages, it was agreed she should travel to Fort Yuma.
When she arrived, Olive had to ask for Western style clothing as she was dressed in traditional Mohave attire, which meant she wore nothing above the waist. After a few days she discovered that her brother Lorenzo had been searching for her.
Olive became an instant celebrity. In 1857, Royal B. Stratton wrote the book Life Among the Indians about Olive and Mary Ann. It became a bestseller and paid for her and Lorenzo’s education. Olive went on lecture tours to promote the book.