I Will Survive: The Story of Olive Oatman

Olive OatmanWe all love survival stories. They give us hope . . . hope that if we were ever snatched off of our comfortable sofas and forced to endure unspeakable hardships that we would, in fact, endure . . . rather than crumple like the stale potato chips that fell between the couch cushions. One of my favorite survival stories is that of Olive Oatman. She was a strong woman of the Old West whose remarkable story of survival brings to mind that old Gloria Gaynor song, “I Will Survive.”

At First She Was Afraid, She Was Petrified.

Olive Oatman was one of seven children born to a Mormon family that joined a wagon train in Independence, Missouri, headed for California. They began the trek in 1850, when Olive was about thirteen-years-old. No one quite knows why, but the Oatman family found themselves separated from the security of the rest of the group. Oh, that was bad, bad, bad!

Olive Oatman

As they were traveling through the Gila River Valley, a group of Indians attacked their lone wagon. The Oatmans were no match for the Yavapai. Olive and her seven-year-old sister, Mary Ann, watched what they believed to be the massacre of the rest of their family. In reality, their brother, Lorenzo, did survive the attack by pretending to be dead.

Kept Thinking She Could Never Live Without Them By Her Side

LorenzoOlive and Mary Ann were taken captive. Lorenzo, who was almost fifteen-years-old at the time, managed to find the wagon train from which the Oatmans had been separated. He vowed to find his sisters, if it was the last thing he did.

Olive OatmanFor a year, Olive and Mary Ann were slaves of the Yavapai. At the end of that time, they were sold to a Mojave chief. The girls had no idea what sort of treatment to expect from the Mojave. They had been purchased for blankets, horses and vegetables. How much value would their new captors put on the girls’ lives? For ten days, the girls followed the Mojave on foot. They ended up near what is currently Needles, California.

She Spent So Many Nights Thinking How They Did Her Wrong

Olive7While Olive and Mary Ann desperately missed their former lives, they were happy to learn that they were not slaves to the Mojave. They were, instead, treated as family members. Their beatings decreased and their food increased. Their lives may have improved, but the girls still had the horrible memories of the slaughter of their family members.

Yet, this was definitely a step in the right direction for the sisters. They were adopted by a family in the tribe and given the family name, Oach. Olive and Mary Ann were called, “ahwe,” which means stranger. While “stranger,” may not be a term of endearment, it’s a heckuva lot better than, “slave!”

Olive OatmanThe girls were given blue tattoos on their chins. The blue cactus design was common among Mojave women. I’m not one to question the cultural choices of a tribe, but I will say, that to my modern idea of beauty, the chin tattoos were a bold choice. Still, things were looking up for Olive and Mary Ann. They had gained acceptance by the tribe.

However, when a drought struck the area, the tribe faced starvation. The tribe lost many members. And Olive lost Mary Ann, her last known tie to “home.”

And She Grew Strong, She Learned How To Get Along

Her parents were gone. Her siblings were gone. Her old way of life was gone. And she had a massive blue tattoo on her chin that would mark her for the rest of her life. Olive Oatman had a choice. She could shrivel up and die or she could survive.

People have questioned why Olive never attempted to escape. Over the years, there were multiple white men who traded with the Mojave. In 1854, two hundred white men who were surveying for the railroads met with the tribe. Why didn’t Olive hitch a ride with one of them and high tail it out of there? That question may be impossible to answer, but I have a few guesses:

  • Maybe she truly wanted to stay with the only “family” she believed she had, at that point. Remember that she had no idea Lorenzo had survived.
  • Maybe she was afraid of getting caught trying to escape.
  • Maybe she wasn’t sure how a girl with a massive blue tattoo on her chin would be accepted in white society.

Olive Oatman


Anyway . . . as I said, those are just some of my thoughts. It doesn’t really matter why she stayed. But she did stay until the winter of 1856, when the U.S. Army caught wind of the fact that she was living among the Mojave. Lorenzo, true to his vow, had never let people forget about his sisters’ capture. Negotiations occurred and Olive was ransomed on February 28, 1856. She was taken to Fort Yuma, Arizona, where she and the brother she had believed to be dead were reunited.

She Had All Her Life to Live, She Had All Her Love To Give

Do you know how it is when you talk to a friend you haven’t spoken to in years, but it’s as if you just pick up where you left off? That wasn’t the case for Olive and Lorenzo. She wasn’t the fresh-faced Mormon pioneer that Lorenzo had last seen. She was a tan young woman wearing a skirt made of tree bark. Oh, and she had a blue cactus tattoo on her chin and was struggling to remember how to speak English. But they did eventually get reacquainted. Lorenzo worked hard to help her acclimate to her new life.

Olive OatmanOlive became the subject of a book written by Rev. Royal B. Stratton. Life Among the Indians was a smashing success. The surviving Oatman siblings received enough money from the sales of the book to pay for them to receive degrees from University of the Pacific. After they graduated, Olive and Lorenzo moved to New York with Stratton. They hit the lecture circuit and the books continued to fly off the shelves. Olive routinely wore a veil to cover her face, but she removed the veil to show audiences.

Olive met cattleman John Brant Fairchild in 1865 and the couple married that same year. Her new husband burned the remaining copies of Life Among the Indians and Olive’s career on the speaking circuit ended. Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild settled in Sherman, Texas, where John was president of City Bank of Sherman. Olive and John adopted a daughter, Mamie.

She Knew That She, She Would Survive!

Olive OatmanThere are rumors that Olive died in an insane asylum. That isn’t true, although goodness knows I can see how it might have happened. Olive did battle depression, but she lived out her life as a respected member of Sherman, Texas society.

Even a survivor can’t live forever. Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack in 1903. She is buried in West Hill Cemetery in Sherman. Olive’s story has survived, though. Elements of her story have even been integrated into the popular television series, Hell on Wheels. The character Eva Toole shares some similarities with Olive Oatman. Of course, television has spiced up the account so that you might not recognize the similarities to Olive, if not for the tattoo.

The Blue TattooIf you would like to learn more about Olive Oatman, I recommend The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, by Margot Mifflin. The book includes letters and diaries of Olive’s friends and relatives. It also includes enough stories about her triumphant survival to make Gloria Gaynor proud!

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

8 Replies to “I Will Survive: The Story of Olive Oatman”

  1. Hi! Thank you for a very interesting read! I had never heard of Olive before. I probably never would have, if I hadn’t come across a link on Pinterest. I can’t imagine how difficult things were for her, or how amazingly strong she was. And how wonderful that her brother never gave up looking for her. Keep up the good work! I’m putting you on my blog reader!

  2. I’m going to search for her book. I also never heard of her I was surfing history on Pinterest and came across Olives story. Thanks for getting my interest going.

  3. God Bless her. How sad. It brought tears to my eyes. I could never imagine or fathom going through what she did. I also never heard of her until I came across this site. I’m glad I did. 🙂 What a strong lady and how sad her heart must have been through out the years. Only the good Lord knows why. I’m also glad her brother never gave up either. 🙂

  4. Yes,Olive is a very strong lady.i will look for her book and her movie.i hope I have that strength that she has.the Lord was with her,and her brother never gave up either,awesome.Olive is a lady that we can look up to,if you can go through things like that,you can go through anything as long as you have God on your side. ☺

  5. I’m 3/4 of the way through “The Blue Tattoo” book. It is incredibly sad, but well written and researched. It is unimaginable physically surviving, but what it would do to your mind and emotions is mind boggling. I recommend this book highly.

  6. History can be messy – in researching my family history, I found a story about Mary Custer, wife of William Custer, my relations:

    “I was born on the old Reuel Custer farm, eight miles north of Madison Indiana, on March 7, 1835. My great grandfather, William Custer, was born and lived in the Shenandoah Valley, Va. His family consisted of six children: three sons and three daughters. His father had 24 sons (YIKES!), and it is thought that General Custer was descended from one of them.

    It was during one of these periods of time that my great grandmother (name unknown), returning home from a neighbor’s, was captured by a band of roving Indians from the North. She was carried by her savage captors into the wilds of Canada. They were so near her cabin as they carried her away that she could hear her baby crying in his cradle. She was held captive for a long time by the Indians (one account said that she had 3 sons and 3 daughters while in captivity), and was finally sold to a French doctor, who gave her her freedom after twenty years in captivity. Soon after gaining her freedom, she, with others, began their journey back to their homes in the colonies.

    Ref: http://legendsofthefamily.blogspot.com/2014/08/custer-family-kidnapping-legend.html

  7. Been to oatman mountain many times.It is next to the Gila River. I suspect the family was near the river when attacked.The mountains in that area are extremely rough with Malapi rock.Hydroglyfics and Butterfield stagecoach stop over Adobe hut in same area. Many versions of the story.One is that the capturing and killing tribe were Apache and the girls were treated horribly until traded to the Mohaves.

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