Have you ever wondered about the name of the Arizona town “Oatman“? The town, as well as a local gold mine, was named to honor and memorialize Olive Oatman. It’s a tragic story with a mostly happy ending, told in many versions of books, magazine articles, newsreels, TV shows and even a movie or two.

Royce and Mary Ann Oatman were members of an offshoot of the Morman church called Brewsterites. In 1850 they left Independence MO with a group of like-minded folks headed to California. Dissention among the group caused a split around what is now Santa Fe New Mexico. Royce Oatman along with several others of the group decided to take the southern route which would lead through Tucson in Arizona Territory and eventually to the Mouth of the Colorado River. Upon reaching Maricopa Wells the group was advised to not continue because of hostiles known to be in the area. Most of the group decided they had enough and ended their journey at that point. Royce continued on with his wife and family of seven children. What followed was what has become known as the “Oatman massacre”. The family was attacked and all but Olive and her younger sister were left for dead. Olive would later refer to the natives as Apaches, but most now believe they were actually a group of Yavapai.

For a year of their captivity the girls were treated harshly by the Yavapai and were forced to perform difficult labor in the camp.  They were then traded to a tribe of Mohave where both Olive and her sister Mary Ann were treated better and given land to raise their own food. Mary Ann later died during a period of draught during which a number of native children also starved.


Olive Oatman Historic Route 66 Arizona
Olivia (Olive) Oatman

When Olive was 19yrs old a young Yuma brave traveled to the Mohave camp and convinced them to negotiate with Fort Yuma for the return of young Olive. A trade was worked out and she was turned over to officers at the Fort. It was at this time that she learned her older brother Lorenzo had survived the attack and had been searching for her since.


Olive had received tattoos on her chin which were a custom of the Mohave people. She was also reunited with a childhood friend who said that Olive was grieving because she had taken a Mohave man as husband and had two children with him. Olive always denied that this was true however some have said that only married women were given the blue tattoos that she bore. Others say that the tattoo is merely a marking to identify a woman as a member of the tribe.

In 1857 a minister by the name of Royal B. Stratton wrote a book, “Life among the Indians,” which told Olive’s story. The book sold 30,000 copies which provided royalties that paid for Olive and Lorenzo to attend the University of the Pacific.

Olive later traveled the country on a lecture circuit to promote sales of the book and met Rancher John B. Fairchild whom she married. The couple later moved to Sherman TX where she died in 1903 and is buried at the West Hill Cemetery.

AMC’s TV show, “Hell on Wheels,” is perhaps the most recent media to capitalize on the story of Olive. One of the characters featured in this show is the young Eva who sports the same tattoos as Olive. I’m not sure if the show is still in production but the episodes are available on AMC’s web site. You can read their version of the Olive Oatman story here.

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