Although many stories have emerged about white captivity with the Indians, none can equal the ordeal of two little sisters, Olivia "Olive" and Mary Ann Oatman. Snatched from a world of privilege and thrown into a world of brutality, it took great courage and skill to survive among their tormentors. When rescue finally came, it was a relief even to the Indians.
The Oatman saga began when father Royce Oatman ignored advice from other members of his wagon train. He had traveled from Iowa to become one of fifty wagons leaving Independence, Missouri, on 10 August 1850, bound for the riches promised on the west coast. Gold fever had struck California the year before, and much of America was on the move. The train started out in good spirits, but it wasnít long before disagreements split the train into southern and northern routes to the west coast. The Oatman family took the southern route to avoid the cold winter snows. By the time this train had reached the Rio Grande, all of the group had experienced Indian depredations of one sort or another. At Tucson, most decided to stay. Three wagons, the Oatmans, Kellys, and Wilders, elected to press on to the next village.
They left Tucson early in January 1851, and after days of torturous travel and impassable roads, they were all just about beaten. Unknown to them, while in route, Indian problems had increased. As more and more Apaches were seen on the horizon, the Kellys and Wilders became more and more alarmed. On February 16, 1851, the three wagons rolled into a Pima Indian village, where the Kellys and Wilders decided to remain and await assistance. Royce Oatman believed it was just as dangerous to stay as to press on to Fort Yuma, located 190 miles away. A new arrival in camp had just come from Fort Yuma, and he said they had seen no Indians the entire trip.
Although cautioned to remain in camp until other wagons could provide a measure of safety, the Oatman family set out for Fort Yuma on the morning of 11 March 1851. Besides Olive, who was thirteen, and Mary Ann, who was seven, there were four other children, among them 14-year-old Lorenzo. After a few days of travel, their camp was visited by nineteen Apaches, all demanding food. With barely enough provisions to sustain his own family, Royce Oatman could spare very little for the Indians. It wasnít enough. The Apaches gave a deafening yell and attacked.
Everyone in the family was butchered, except Olive and Mary Ann. Olive later wrote that she saw her father struggling, bleeding and moaning, in the most pitiful manner. Lorenzo was lying with his face in the dust with the top of his head covered in blood. Her mother Mary and baby brother were lying nearby, "as if the work of death had been completed." When she heard her mother moan, she sprang to help, but the Indian standing over her grabbed her, threatening her with a club.
With the massacre complete, the Indians herded the two sisters in a frenzied pace toward the distant mountains. Stripped of most of their clothing, barefoot with feet bleeding, the girls tried to keep up. Each time they faltered, they were beaten. There was no stopping for rest and food, and absolutely no mercy shown. When Mary Ann finally fell and could no longer be beaten into walking, one Indian threw her over his shoulder and packed her to their camp. Olive later estimated the total distance they traveled on that horrible trip to be greater than 100 miles.
Arriving at the Indian village totally exhausted, the two girls were thrown on some sticks, where they were further tormented by Indians whooping and laughing in a circle around them. After the horrors of what had happened to their family, both thought they had been taken prisoners to be tortured and killed in some sort of ceremony.
The two sisters became slaves. Apache children would make them work, compelling them to pack fuel and water upon their backs over long distances. If the girls didnít do as they were told, the Indian parents would beat them. Within two weeks, their clothing wore out, and Olive matted together the bark of trees and tied it around them. It offered only slight covering and no warmth. That first winter, they almost died from the cold.
The Mohave and Apaches were friends, and the following summer, the Mohaves bartered for the two sisters. A deal was struck, and after ten days of traveling over rough mountainous country to the Mohave village along the Colorado River in western Arizona, during which time they were barefoot and were not allowed to eat except for "a piece of meat about the size of my fist" on the fourth day of travel, the girls arrived in their new home. Half-starved, sick and weak, they were adopted into the Mohave chiefís family as one of his own children. It was the first time since their captivity that they were shown any kindness.
The girls began to thrive with the Mohave. They were given blankets for covering and for warmth, food was divided with them, and they were not obliged to labor. Lands were allotted to them, and they were given seeds to grow corn, melons and beans. Olive was told that she could leave any time she wished, but the Mohave dared not show her the way for fear of reprisal for keeping her among them. Both girls were tattooed on their chins and arms by sticking cactus thorns into them and then rubbing dye or charcoal into the wounds.
After about a year, a terrible famine struck the Mohave tribe, and several Indian children died. Mary Ann grew so weak that she could no longer get up to search for food. When she told the Indians that she wished to die, they gathered around her, listened while she sang a hymn in a crystal clear voice, and then sorrowfully mourned her passing as they did their own children. In respect, they allowed Olive to bury Mary Ann, instead of cremating the body, as was their usual custom.
Olive maintained Mary Annís grave as a sort of shrine. It was the only link she had to her past, and she desperately longed for that past. Unknown to her, older brother Lorenzo had survived the massacre, and he was searching everywhere for her. It was five years into her captivity, but the break finally came when a Yuma Indian named Francisco said he would go search among the Mohave Nation for her.
The Yumas and the Mohaves were friends. Their customs, manners, and dress were the same, and their language was similar. Francisco came into the camp and asked for Oliveís release. He then returned to Fort Yuma, secured the necessary payment (six pounds of white beads, four blankets, two horses, and some other trinkets), and returned for her. The Mohave chiefís wife, who had treated her as one of her own, cried all that day and night. The next morning, Olive and Francisco left on foot for Fort Yuma. They traveled with great speed, having to swim the Colorado River in two places, and ten days later, she was reunited with a sobbing Lorenzo.
Olive and Lorenzo remained close all the rest of their lives. She was never made a wife to the Indians, and sometime around 1860, she married a wealthy man named John Brant Fairchild. The Fairchilds lived in Detroit, Michigan for a few years, and then moved to Sherman, Texas, where they adopted a daughter, naming her Mary Elizabeth after Oliveís mother and sister. Four years before her husbandís death, and five years before her daughterís, Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five. It was a Friday night, 10 March 1903. After an Episcopal Presbyterian funeral service in her home, she was laid to rest in West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.
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