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The girl with the face tattoo and the Oatman massacre

Actualizado: 1 mar

When Lorenzo Oatman first regained consciousness after being beaten, he was still dazed. However, it didn't take him long to realize the horror of the scene. Around him, his family lay dead in a bloodbath. The sun shone next to the Yuma River Valley on March 18, 1851. Lorenzo trudged to a settlement where he could recover and tell his story. Shocked by the news, a group of men decided to return with Lorenzo to the place where the family had been attacked. There, they found the bodies of his father (Royce Oatman), his mother (eight months pregnant), and four of his siblings. However, there was no sign of the youngest: Olive (age 11) and Mary Anne (age 7).


Olive Oatman with her cactus tattoo

The Oatman family belonged to the group of pioneers on the Western frontier of the United States. They were seeking a new land to prosper, guided by a religious spirit and the desire for better conditions. They were part of the Brewsterites, followers of James C. Brewster, a religious leader who split from the Mormons and received divine messages. In one of them, God told him to begin a journey to the West to found a new city in the promised land of the Rio Grande Valley. However, some families (including the Oates) intended to go further West and reach California (a different kind of promised land).


Pioneers in the mid-19th century heading west

They began their journey from Missouri in August 1850 and traveled by horse-drawn wagon. The journey west could take many months or even more than a year. When they entered the territory of New Mexico, things began to get difficult. The terrain was an obstacle, the climate increasingly extreme, thieves a constant danger, and the attitude of Native Americans hostile toward white travelers.


Traveling in large groups offered security but also slowed down the journey. Impatient to reach his destination and worried about dwindling supplies, Royce Oatman made the mistake of continuing the journey alone. This is how they arrived at the banks of the Gila River to camp when a group of natives approached them to ask for food and tobacco. Royce Oatman was smoking with the men; however, he did not offer them much food, just some bread, worried about feeding his seven children and his pregnant wife. Offended and aggrieved, the men began to beat the entire family with sticks, but they took away the two youngest daughters: Olive and Mary Anne. Lorenzo was left for dead and managed to save himself to tell the story.


The two sisters were taken as prisoners by the Tolpekaya tribe, who held them against their will and mistreated them repeatedly. However, the daughter of a chief of the Mohave tribe, a girl named Topeka, took pity on the two girls and insisted that the Mohave exchange them and become part of her tribe. Although Olive and Mary Anne were suspicious at first, the truth is that they were very well received by the Mohave people, who treated them warmly and cared for them as if they were members of the family. The two girls never attempted to escape even though they had numerous opportunities to do so, as they lived as two full members of the Mohave tribe.


The harvest of 1855 was very poor for the Mohave. Food was so scarce that several members of the tribe died, including Mary Anne, who perished due to malnutrition.


In Mohave culture, women of higher rank often tattoo their faces as a sign of distinction. Furthermore, in Mohave culture, tattoos were necessary for members to recognize each other in the afterlife. That's why Olive and Mary Anne Oates were tattooed on their chins and arms using blue ink.


Returning to American society was not easy for Olive Oatman

Rumors began to spread among the white population of California that the Mohave kept a girl who was also white. This scared the Mohave as they feared repression. She was a very well-liked member of the tribe, but she was encouraged to leave. Suddenly, she had become a liability. The danger she represented to the tribe was too great to be ignored.

In 1856, Olive traveled to Fort Yuma, where she was reunited with her brother Lorenzo. She also received some help from individuals and the State of California, but it was short-term help. The truth is that Olive had difficulty reintegrating into American society. She suffered severe headaches and depression. She became something similar to a fairground attraction because of her history and peculiar appearance.


Despite being a very beautiful girl, her chances of marriage were slim due to her face tattoos. To earn a living, she began to give lectures and tell her story, but in exchange for having to adapt it to the taste of society. They preferred a version in which Native Americans were the bad guys and that they enslaved her against her will.

Finally, almost ten years after returning to American society, she married John Fairchild, a rancher. They quietly moved to Sherman (Texas), where they lived until her end in 1903. They did not have biological children but adopted a girl.

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That's a very interesting story Adrián! What happened to Mary Anne? Did she stay with the Mohave tribe?

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The harvest of 1855 was very poor for the Mohave. Food was so scarce that several members of the tribe died, including Mary Anne, who perished due to malnutrition.


Thank you for reminding me this... It could not be left out!

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