You’ve probably heard of many great Texas pioneer women. Susannah Dickenson, for example, was one of the only survivors of the Alamo. There’s also Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by Comanches at an early age. Parker eventually gave birth to Quannah Parker, the famous Comanche chief. But unless you grew up around Sherman, Texas, you might not have heard of the famous marked woman, Olive Oatman. Her tragic story became as famous as the tattoos on her face.
Roys Oatman knew he was taking his family on a perilous journey when they left Illinois for California in 1850, but he didn’t wager it would end in his own death and the deaths of his wife and four of his children. Wagon trails during the days of Westward expansion were notoriously dangerous. Water was hard to come by and wagon trains were routinely robbed or raided by marauders. Another threat came from the Native Americans through whose territory the trails passed.
Oatman and his family were Brewsterites, a splinter Mormon group who followed the teachings of James Colin Brewster. Brewster came to prominence following the death of Joseph Smith. He claimed that the true gathering place for Mormons was in California rather than Utah. While many Mormons accepted the leadership of Brigham Young, a smaller group followed Brewster.
The Oatmans met with other Brewsterites in Missouri to journey to California, but eventually moved on ahead of the rest. The family traveled alone through a hazardous region of Arizona known for Indian attacks. Sure enough, the Oatmans were soon surrounded by a group of 20 Yavapai Indians. The encounter left Roys Oatman, his wife and four of his seven children dead. 15-year-old Lorenzo was beaten and left for dead. But he survived and made it back to the rest of the Mormon settlers traveling on the trail. He realized that 13-year-old Olive and eight-year-old Mary Ann were missing, and assumed them to be kidnapped.
Unaware that Lorenzo had survived, Olive and Mary Ann were brought back alive to the Yavapai village and made to work as slaves for a year. The sisters were made to endure cruel suffering and harsh treatment from the tribe. They were forced to forage for food and were burned with hot sticks, beaten and starved for noncompliance.
Their fate changed one day when they were traded to a Mohave tribe for some horses and blankets. Rather than treating the girls brutally as the Yavapai had, the Mohave raised them as family, and even tattooed the sisters to identify them as tribal members. The girls lived a peaceful life among the Mohaves until a famine took the life of Olive’s sister, Mary Ann. Olive survived, however, and once word got out that there was a white woman living among the Mohave Indians, the federal government stepped in to rescue her. The tribe fought valiantly to keep Olive, who had become family to the Mohave. She had become so acclimated to Indian life that she had almost forgotten how to speak English. The U.S. government won, however, and Olive was returned to live among the white settlers.
Oatman was something of a spectacle and a national sensation after her discovery. Not only had she been kidnapped and then rescued, but she was a beautiful woman who had been covered in tattoos on her arms and chin. She suffered from depression following her removal from the tribe, and continued to seek treatment for it for the rest of her life. It is now speculated that the depression was as much an effect of the trauma endured by witnessing the murder of her birth family as it was a consequence of having been forcibly removed from the second home she had made among the Mohave. It was rumored that she was distraught because she had married a Native man and bore two sons while living with the tribe, but Oatman always denied that, stating only that she missed her adoptive family among the Mohaves.
After having been brought back into Western culture, Oatman was reunited with her brother. She eventually helped to write a book and toured the country giving lectures about her life and the Native Americans who had captured her, and the tribe that had taken her in as family. It was on this lecture circuit where she met John Brant Fairchild, whom she later married. After her marriage, Oatman quit the lecture tours and the two settled in Sherman, Texas and adopted a daughter. She died in 1903 and is buried in Sherman. The book about her life is called, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, and she has been used as character inspiration in TV and film.