In 1850, Royce and Mary Oatman and their seven children left Illinois and headed West for a better life.  They had been coming from Illinois, and met up with other members of their LDS Church and departed from Independence, Missouri with the ultimate destination being California.  Though they began with a group of about 90 people, merely one week in to their travels, only the Oatman family remained steadfast.  They made it all the way to Yuma (now Arizona) before they befell a tragic fate:  A local Mohave tribe attacked the family and killed everyone but Lorenzo (whom the Indians thought was dead) and Mary Ann and Olive, who were taken for slaves.  

Upon joining the Mohave tribe, both of the girls had their chins tattooed in the customary fashion.  They didn't know at the time that Lorenzo members had survived the attack, much less that there would be a chance of freedom.  As such, they became an active part of the tribe, serving initially for hard labor, then as actual members of the tribe.  


In 1855, when Olive was 19, a severe drought hit the area and many people died of starvation.  The young Mary Ann died during this time, as depicted in this 1857 drawing by Royal B. Stratton.  The drought increased travel and communication among tribes and also between tribes and the west-ward travelers.  Rumors began to circulate that a white woman was living with the Mohaves, despite their having been a part of the community for six years by this point.  


A group of men (including her brother, Lorenzo) sent a messenger to the camp and arranged for Olive's release upon hearing the news.  The Mohave were cooperative with her release, and she then traveled safely to Fort Yuma by horseback.  When she arrived, everyone was shocked and amazed that she had survived, but was was now 'marked' as one of the tribe members!  You can imagine the degree of intrigue about this whole ordeal. 


This made her an instant celebrity, so much so that in 1857, Royal B. Stratton wrote a bestselling book about what Olive and Mary Ann had experienced.  This celebrity funded education and a better life for Olive and her brother.  

In 1865, Olive would marry a local cattleman and adopt a baby girl.  Despite her husband forcing her to stop doing lectures tied to the books, it's reported that toward the end of her life, she traveled to meet with a Mohave leader to discuss "old times".  She also always kept a jar of hazelnuts, a Mohave stable, nearby as a reminder of her experience.  This remains to be one of the more interesting and though-provoking stories during a time when most are simply tales of violence and hate between the settlers and the Native Americans.  


See Next Story

The Faces of Ellis Island: 12 Portraits of Immigrants from the Early 1900s