Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman (1837–1903)

By: Sherrie S. McLeRoy

Revised by: Brian McGinty

Type: Biography

Published: July 7, 2022

Updated: July 30, 2022

Indian captive, lecturer, and early-day resident of Sherman, Texas, was born in La Harpe, Hancock County, Illinois on September 7, 1837, the second daughter of Roys (often erroneously spelled Royce, Royse, or Rois) Oatman and his wife Mary Ann (Sperry) Oatman. The Oatman family gave up their Methodist faith in about 1839 to become followers of Joseph Smith, founder of the religious group called Mormons but officially designated as the “Latter-day Saints” or “Saints of the Latter Days” (now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Following Smith’s death at the hands of a mob in 1844, the Oatmans rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and joined a dissident group of Mormons led by a self-designated “seer and revelator” named James Colin Brewster. Brewster had received revelations that the true “gathering place” of the Mormons was to be at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers (now located on the border between Arizona and California) in what he identified as the “Land of Bashan.”

Leaving Illinois, the Oatmans joined a wagon train of Brewsterites that left Independence, Missouri, in August, 1850, and headed for the “Land of Bashan.” Roys Oatman proved to be a difficult and quarrelsome traveling partner, so other members of the train gradually separated themselves from him and his family as they made their way along the Santa Fé Trail through Kansas and New Mexico, the northern reaches of the Mexican State of Sonora, and what would soon (through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853) become southern Arizona.

On February 18, 1851, Roys Oatman, his pregnant wife Mary Ann, and their seven children found themselves alone atop a rocky mesa on the south bank of the Gila River, where they encountered a band of about nineteen Indians traveling on foot. Often misidentified as Apaches, the Indians were almost certainly Western Yavapais, or Tolkepayas, who were suffering hunger as the result of a severe drought and famine that had beset the southwestern deserts. After giving the Indians some bread, Roys Oatman refused their demand for more food. Angered, the Indians attacked the Oatmans with clubs, killing all members of the family except thirteen-year-old Olive, her eight-year-old sister Mary Ann, and her fourteen-year-old brother, Lorenzo. They ransacked the wagon, looted the fallen bodies, and stole the oxen that had been pulling the wagon. Badly bloodied and left for dead, Lorenzo was able to make it back to other members of the Brewsterite train and tell them what had happened, while Olive and Mary Ann were captured and taken through the mountains to a Tolkepaya village. They were held there for about a year, after which they were traded to the Mohaves, who occupied a valley to the northwest along the Colorado River between California and Arizona.

While with the Mohaves, Olive and Mary Ann lived in the home of one of the tribal leaders (probably a kohot or festival chief). Believing that all of their Oatman family members had been killed and that they would never return to the world of the whites, they learned the Mohave language, dressed in the Mohave style, and adopted Mohave habits. Their chins and arms were tattooed. Although the tattoos were later characterized as slave marks, they were in fact evidence of the girls’ acceptance into the world of the Mohaves, who bore similar tattoos. Mary Ann died of starvation during a drought that struck the Mohave Valley in 1855. Olive may have given birth to one or more half-Mohave children during the four years she lived with the Mohaves, although evidence on the question is unclear and subject to scholarly dispute.

Recovering from the wounds he suffered in the massacre, Lorenzo Oatman went to California, where he sought to learn the whereabouts of his sisters. His efforts bore fruit early in 1856, when Olive’s residence in the Mohave Valley was discovered and she was brought south to Fort Yuma, a U.S. military establishment at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado. Reunited with Lorenzo, Olive went on to California and eventually into southern Oregon, where she lived with Oatman cousins and she and Lorenzo met Royal Byron Stratton, a Methodist minister. Stratton wrote a sensationalized book about the massacre of the Oatman family and Olive’s life with the Indians. The book titled, Life Among the Indians, but later retitled Captivity of the Oatman Girls, was crafted as an Indian captivity narrative, a literary form that was common in American history. Initially published in San Francisco in 1857, the book misidentified the capturing Indians as Apaches and included long tracts of fervid and largely fictional anti-Indian prose. It quickly became a runaway best-seller and was reprinted in both San Francisco and New York.

Moving to New York, Olive went on the lecture circuit, where for several years she addressed audiences about her experiences among the Indians. The tattoos on her arms were concealed with the long sleeves of her dresses, although the marks on her chin aroused excitement and curiosity. She was on the lecture circuit in Farmington, Michigan, in 1864, when she met John Brant Fairchild, a New York-born cattleman and farmer, whom she married in Rochester, New York, in 1865.

After her marriage, she gave up all of her lecture activities, while Fairchild attempted to find copies of Stratton’s book and destroy them. Olive and her husband moved to Sherman, Texas, in 1872, where they adopted a baby girl named Mary Elizabeth (called Mamie) and moved into a handsome two-story house. Although Olive was a respected member of the Sherman community and Fairchild was one of its most prominent businessmen, she was clearly troubled. She rarely left her home and, when she did, attempted to cover her chin tattoo with veils and face powders. She left Sherman periodically to seek treatment for physical and nervous ailments, even going as far away as Canada. Letters found after her death bore evidence to the psychological scars she had suffered in her early years. Often ascribed to mistreatment by the Indians, her emotional problems were just as likely due to the loss of her family members and the bittersweet memories she left behind in the Mohave Valley. Olive died in Sherman on March 21, 1903, at the age of sixty-five. John Brant Fairchild died four years later, on April 25, 1907. Both were interred in an elaborate grave Fairchild had prepared in Sherman’s West Hill Cemetery. A Texas historical marker was placed there in 1969. In November of 2011 the AMC Network series Hell on Wheels included a character, Eva Toole, who shared many traits with Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild. See also CAPTIVES OF AMERICAN INDIANS.

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Brian McGinty, The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006). 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.

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

Sherrie S. McLeRoy Revised by Brian McGinty, “Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/fairchild-olive-ann-oatman.

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July 7, 2022
July 30, 2022

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