By Jim Turner

It was late February 1851.  Royce Oatman and his family struggled to push their wagon up a steep bank along the Gila River near present day Gila Bend.  Around sunset about a dozen Yavapai men came up from the river.  They asked for meat and tobacco.  Royce gave them some bread, and told them sternly to go away.  He said he did not have enough food to feed his family.  The Yavapai backed off several paces and stood in a circle, talking.  Then all at once they rushed the Oatmans, swinging their war clubs. In a matter of minutes they killed Royce, his wife, and four of his seven children.  They hit fourteen-year-old Lorenzo on the head and threw him over a cliff.  The Yavapai spared Olive Oatman, age thirteen, and her sister Mary Ann, eight.

According to Olive’s accounts, the Yavapai beat them, worked them almost to death, and let their children taunt them. Olive originally thought Tonto Apaches had captured them, but in his well-researched The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival, (2006) historian Brian McGinty made a detailed case leading to the strong likelihood that it was Yavapai, not Apache—the Yavapai were often mistaken for Apache.

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Olive Oatman with Mohave tattoos, soon after her rescue (Photo Courtesy of Author).

About a year later, Mohave Indians on a trading expedition came across the girls in the Yavapai village. Topeka, the 17-year-old daughter of Mohave leader Espaniole, convinced her father to trade two horses, several blankets, and other goods for the Oatman girls.  The girls went to live with the Mohave on the banks of the Colorado River near present-day Parker, Arizona.

The Mohave were much kinder to the girls.  They gave them their own seeds and a piece of land so they could grow their own food.  The Mohave liked to hear the girls sing hymns, and gave them presents for their efforts.  They tattooed Olive, now called Spantsa, with blue rows of dots and triangles on her chin, according to their custom.

Weather, hunting, and farming were bad for the next few years.  Mary Ann Oatman, already racked with lung problems, died of starvation.  According to Olive, the Mohave grieved, and even helped her hold a Christian burial for her little sister.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo did not die when he was thrown over the cliff at the massacre site. Eventually he reached California, but never gave up trying to rescue his sisters.  He pleaded with the army and the California Legislature for five years and finally heard from a German immigrant, Frederick Ronstadt. He said that a Yuma Indian named Francisco knew where the girls were.  Brevet Major George Henry Thomas authorized a ransom expedition and Olive Oatman returned with them to Fort Yuma.

Lorenzo came from California to get her.  They went to live with a cousin in Oregon, and then with a Protestant missionary, Royal B. Stratton.  With the help of Lorenzo and Olive, Stratton wrote an immensely popular book, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls. Stratton slanted the accounts to make the Mohave seem more savage and in need of conversion.

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Pictured here is the Oatman grave memorial – sketched in the 1860s. The massacre site is atop the plateau in the background (Drawing Courtesy of Author).

For several years, Olive traveled all over the United States, telling her story and selling books. Embarrassed about her tattoos, she sometimes covered them with heavy makeup or a veil. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Olive Oatman were the only renowned women public speakers in the United States at that time.

In late 1864 while lecturing near Detroit, Michigan, Olive met cattleman John Fairchild. They married and moved to Sherman, Texas, where he became a prominent banker and community leader.  Olive was involved in many church activities and charities, and they adopted a little girl, Mamie.  Local children who remembered Olive said she was very nice to them.

Although plagued with migraines and melancholy and sometimes sent to recuperate at sanitariums, Olive was never locked up in an insane asylum as legends have it.  Over all, Olive always said that the Mohave were good to her.  She and her sister thought of them fondly.  Olive especially missed her adopted sister, Topeka.

Olive Oatman died of a heart attack in 1903.  She was 65.

Renowned historian Jim Turner will present “The Captivity of the Oatman Girls” to the members of the Prescott Corral of Westerners on Thursday evening, September 4, at 7:00.  For membership information, visit

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to