Guest Author - Vance Rowe
Olive Oatman was a young girl of fourteen when her family’s wagon train was attacked by hostile Native Americans. She was taken by the Indians as was her seven year old sister, Mary. The rest of her family was killed by the Native American tribe. All except for one brother who was repeatedly clubbed and left for dead. He would later reunite with her sister when she was freed. This attack that would be come to be known as the Oatman Massacre happened on the Gila River in southern Arizona about 80 miles east of present day Yuma. The Oatman family was part of a wagon train heading to California from Illinois. When the wagon train reached a place called Maricopa Springs, they were warned not to go on as the trail was dangerous and the Native Americans were hostile. The people of the wagon train heeded the advice and stayed but the Oatman’s decided to go ahead.
Some stories about Olive’s capture say it was the Apaches who did this but it was more likely a tribe of western Yavapai Indians, known as the Tolkepayas. They held the two sisters for a year until they were traded to the Mojave people. The younger sister Mary, died a couple of years later from hunger, due to a drought the Mojave tribe suffered through. Five years would pass before Olive Oatman would be released by the Mojave people. In 1854, a group of white railroad surveyors spent a week with the Mojave in their valley trading and socializing with the tribe and not one time did Oatman tell them that she was a captured white woman. Olive Oatman had no idea that her brother Lorenzo was still alive so she thought she had no immediate family outside of the tribe and stayed with the Mojave people.
When the Mojaves traded for Olive, they kind of adopted her and her sister into their clan and their chins and arms were tattooed. Later Olive Oatman said that this was because this how they marked their slaves but that is not consistent with Mojave tradition. It is said that the Mojave tattooed their people so when they died, they would be recognized in the afterlife by the Mojave ancestors.
Eventually, rumors that a white woman living with the Mojave people had reached the ears of the fort commander at Fort Yuma and he sent a messenger from the Yuma Indian tribe to the Mojaves asking for the release of the woman. After some negotiations and trades of some blankets and a white horse, the Mojave released Olive Oatman to Fort Yuma where she would soon be reunited with her brother Lorenzo. Many books would later be written about this girl with the blue tattoo on her chin. One book written by a pastor would be so successful that the royalties paid for Olive and her brother to attend college. Olive would also give many lectures about her life with the Indians and how she was treated very well by the Mojave people. In 1865 she would marry and the couple would eventually adopt a little girl. Olive Oatman died of a heart attack when she was 65 years old and is interred at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.
On the television series Hell on Wheels, the character of Eva Oakes, a prostitute, is loosely based on Olive Oatman. She bore the same chin tattoo and was captured by the Yavapai Indians when she was a child as well.