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FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN

FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN (1839–1903). Olive Ann Fairchild, Indian captive and lecturer, daughter of Royse (Royce) and Mary Ann (Sperry) Oatman, was born in Illinois in September 1837 or 1839. In 1850 the family joined a wagon train bound for the part of the Colorado River now in southern California, but the train split several times until the Oatmans and their seven children were left to travel alone. On February 18, 1851, Apaches (some authorities say Yavapais) attacked them on the Gila River in Arizona. Olive and her sister Mary were captured, their brother Lorenzo left for dead, and the rest of the family massacred. The girls were held as slaves for a year at a village near the site of modern Congress, Arizona, then sold to a Mojave chief near Needles, California, after a march of several hundred miles. Olive and Mary's chins were marked with indelible blue cactus tattoos to proclaim their status as slaves, and they were forced to forage for their own food. In a subsequent year of drought, Mary died of starvation and abuse. Olive often feared death, for the Mojaves threatened her whenever whites were nearby or when the tribe went to war; they also made her watch other captives being tortured. In the winter of 1855–56, the army located her and began negotiations to free her. On February 28, 1856, wearing a bark skirt and able to speak only a little English, Olive was ransomed at Fort Yuma, Arizona, for a horse, blankets, and beads. There she was reunited with Lorenzo.

In 1857 Royal B. Stratton wrote their story. Life Among the Indians was wildly successful and sold out three editions in a year, for it was one of the few published accounts of such an event. Sales of the book paid for Lorenzo and Olive's education at the University of the Pacific. In 1858 the Oatmans moved to New York with Stratton, and Olive went on the lecture circuit to promote his book. These appearances were among the few occasions on which she appeared in public without a veil to cover her tattooed face.

She married cattleman John Brant Fairchild (1830–1907) in 1865; he is said to have burned all copies of Stratton's book that he could find. They lived in Detroit, Michigan, for seven years before moving to Sherman, Texas, where Fairchild was president of the City Bank. He made his fortune there in banking and real estate. In 1876 Olive and John adopted a daughter. Though shy and retiring, Olive interested herself in the plight of orphaned children but rarely discussed her own youth as an orphan and Indian captive. She always kept a jar of hazelnuts, a staple of Mojave food, as a reminder of those years. She died on March 20, 1903, and is buried in West Hill Cemetery, Sherman. A Texas historical marker was placed on her grave in 1969. See also INDIAN CAPTIVES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Denison Daily Herald, April 25, 1907. New York Times, May 4, 1858. Howard H. Peckham, Captured by Indians: True Tales of Pioneer Survivors (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1954). Edward J. Pettid, "The Oatman Story," Arizona Highways, November 1968.

Sherrie S. McLeRoy

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Sherrie S. McLeRoy, "FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffagr), accessed October 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.