Olive Oatman, the Pioneer Girl Abducted by Native Americans Who Returned a Marked Woman

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia // Public Domain

About a century and a half ago, some Native American tribes of the Southwest used facial tattoos as spiritual rites of passage. Through a series of strange tragedies (and some possible triumphs), a white Mormon teenager who was traveling with her family through the area in the mid-19th century ended up sporting one too, a symbol of a complicated dual life she could never quite shake.

In 1851, the Oatman family, having broken from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was traveling through southeastern California and western Arizona, looking for a place to settle. As newly inducted Brewsterites—followers of Mormon rebel James C. Brewster—they’d been advised that California was, in fact, the true “intended gathering place” for Mormons, rather than Utah.

The group of approximately 90 followers had left Independence, Missouri, in the summer of 1850, but when they arrived in the New Mexico Territory, the party split, with Brewster’s faction taking the route to Santa Fe and then south to Socorro, and Royce (sometimes spelled Roys) Oatman leading a group to Socorro and then over to Tucson. 

When the remaining dregs of the Oatman-led party approached Maricopa Wells, in modern-day Maricopa County, Arizona, they were warned not only that the southwestern trail ahead was barren and dangerous, but that the native tribes in the region were famously violent toward whites. To continue, it was made clear, was to risk one’s life.

The other families elected to stay in Maricopa Wells until they had recuperated enough to make the journey, but Royce Oatman chose to press on. And that’s how Royce, his wife Mary, and their seven children, aged 1 to 17, found themselves trekking through the most arid part of the Sonoran Desert on their own.

Sure enough, about 90 miles east of Yuma, on the banks of the Gila River, the family was waylaid by a group of Native Americans, likely Yavapais, who asked them for food and tobacco. The details of what happened next aren’t known, but the encounter somehow turned into an attack. Apparently, all of the Oatmans were murdered—all except Lorenzo, age 15, who was beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Or so it seemed. When Lorenzo came to, he found six bodies, not eight: Two of his sisters, 14-year-old Olive and 7-year-old Mary Ann, were nowhere to be seen. Badly injured, Lorenzo walked to a settlement and had his wounds treated, then rejoined the group of other Mormon emigrants, who returned with the teenager to the scene of the crime. Because the volcanic soil was rocky and difficult to dig, it was not possible to bury the Oatmans, so cairns were built around their bodies instead.

But where were Olive and Mary Ann?

The Yavapais had taken the sisters, very much alive, to their village about 60 miles away, along with selected prizes from the Oatmans’ wagon. Tied with ropes, the girls had been made to walk for several days through the desert, which triggered serious dehydration and weakened them in general. When they asked for water or rest, they were poked with lances and forced to keep walking. Once they reached the Yavapai village, the girls were treated as slaves, made to forage for food and firewood. The tribe’s children would burn them with smoldering sticks while they worked, and they were beaten often. The girls, Olive later said, were sure they’d be killed.

The girls lived as the Yavapais’ servants for approximately a year, until some members of the Mohave tribe, with whom the group traded, stopped by one day and expressed interest in the Oatmans. The Yavapais ended up swapping them for some horses, blankets, vegetables, and an assortment of trinkets. Once the deal was done, the sisters were again made to walk for several days through the desert, this time north to the Mohave village, near the not-yet-founded city of Needles, California, and unsure of their fates all the while.

Things improved significantly once the girls were on Mohave land: Mary Ann and Olive were taken in straight away by the family of a tribal leader, Espanesay, and adopted as members of the community. To prove it, both children had their chins and upper arms tattooed with blue cactus ink in thick lines, like everybody else in the tribe, to ensure that they’d be recognized as tribal members in the afterlife and—interestingly, in this case—reunited with their ancestors.

The scenery was upgraded, too; the Mohave village was located in an idyllic valley lined with cottonwoods and willows, set along the Colorado River. No longer slaves, they were not forced to work, and “did pretty much as they pleased,” according to an 1856 newspaper account. They were also given land and seeds to raise their own crops. The two sisters were also given their clan’s name, Oach, and they formed strong bonds with the wife and daughter of their adopted family, Aespaneo and Topeka, respectively. For the rest of her life, Olive spoke of the two women with great affection, saying that she and Mary Ann were raised by Espanesay and Aespaneo as their own daughters.

The girls seemingly considered themselves assimilated Mohaves, so much so that, in February of 1854, approximately 200 white railroad surveyors spent a week with the Mohaves as part of the Whipple Expedition, trading and socializing, and neither Olive nor Mary Ann revealed herself as an abductee or asked the men for help. (The girls, unaware that their brother Lorenzo survived the attack in 1851, may have believed they had no living relatives, which could have added another incentive for them to stick with the tribe.)

A few years after their initial capture, a drought in the Southwest caused a major crop shortage and Mary Ann subsequently starved to death, along with many others in the Mohave tribe. She was approximately 10 years old. Olive later said she only made it through the famine herself because she was specifically cared for by Aespaneo, her foster mother, who fed her in secret while the rest of the village went hungry.

In 1855, a member of the nearby Quechan tribe named Francisco showed up at the Mohave village with a message from the federal government of the United States. Authorities at Fort Yuma had heard rumors about a young white woman living with the Mohaves, and the post commander was asking them to either return her or explain why she would choose not to return. The Mohaves first responded by refusing to respond, then sequestering Olive for safekeeping. Next, they tried denying that she was even white. When this didn’t work, they began to weigh their affection for Olive against their fear of reprisal by the U.S. government, which had threatened (via Francisco) to destroy the tribe if Olive was not handed over.

Francisco, as the middleman, was concerned for his neighboring tribe’s safety—and possibly his own—and persisted in his attempts. The negotiations were lengthy and included Olive herself at some points. As she was quoted in one later account of her ordeal:

“I found that they had told Francisco that I was not an American, that I was from a race of people much like the Indians, living away from the setting sun. They had painted my face, and feet, and hands of a dun, dingy color, unlike that of any race I ever saw. This they told me they did to deceive Francisco; and that I must not talk to him in American [sic]. They told me to talk to him in another language, and to tell him that I was not an American. They then waited to hear the result, expecting to hear my gibberish nonsense, and to witness the convincing effect upon Francisco. But I spoke to him in broken English, and told him the truth, and also what they had enjoined me to do. He started from his seat in a perfect rage, vowing that he would be imposed upon no longer.” 

The jig was up. Some of the Mohaves were furious with Olive for disobeying orders and went as far as to suggest that she should be killed as punishment. But her foster family opposed the idea, and Francisco and the Mohaves eventually hammered out an offer: Olive would be ransomed back to the U.S. government in exchange for a horse and some blankets and beads. Olive’s adoptive sister, 17-year-old Topeka, would join her on the trek to ensure the goods were handed over.

When Olive left, Aespaneo wept as if she were losing her own child. The journey to Fort Yuma took 20 days, and the party arrived there on February 22, 1856. When she was approached by the fort’s commander, Olive cried into her hands. Before she was permitted to enter the fort, she was loaned a Western-style dress by an officer’s wife, as she and Topeka arrived wearing only traditional Mohave skirts, with their chests bare. She was also made to wash her painted face as well as her hair, which was dyed with the black sap of a mesquite tree. When asked her given name, she said it was “Olivino,” and told the commander that she was 11 when abducted by the Yavapai, not 14, among other incorrect details. Once she was cleaned up, Olive was received by a cheering crowd.

By the time Olive was sent to Fort Yuma, five years had passed since the murder of most of the Oatman family and the girls’ initial capture. She was soon informed that her brother, Lorenzo, had also survived the massacre; they met soon after, with newspapers across the western U.S. reporting the event as headline news.

Carte de Visite of Olive Oatman via Wikimedia // Public Domain

However, accounts of Olive’s time among the Native American tribes are problematic for several reasons. In 1857, a year after Olive’s return, a Methodist minister named Royal Stratton interviewed Olive at length and wrote a bestselling book, first titled Life Among the Indians and later rechristened Captivity of the Oatman Girls, chronicling the Oatman sisters’ half-decade with the natives. Olive later lectured widely about her experiences in support of the book, but not all of her details added up. In Stratton’s book, Olive stated that neither the Yavapais nor the Mojaves ever “offered the least unchaste abuse to me,” and she denied all allegations of rape or even sexual activity with any members of the tribe. However, her best childhood friend, Susan Thompson—whom Olive later befriended again—believed that Olive had married a Mohave man and given birth to two boys, and that her depression upon returning to non-tribal society was actually grief. Olive denied this.

Olive also displayed some duplicity in her lectures: She repeatedly told audiences that she was tattooed in order to identify her if she escaped from the tribe, neglecting to mention that most Mohave women had facial tattoos, some in the exact same design as Olive’s. She also identified her captors as Apaches, not Yavapai, which most modern historians believe to be untrue. (However, Apache was a common term to describe several Southwestern tribes, so she may have been using the word in a general sense.)

Stratton’s book also includes long stretches of fervid anti-native rhetoric, and she signed off on this portrayal of them via her lectures, frequently calling them savages herself. But this view wasn’t really corroborated by her private actions. After she moved to southern Oregon with her brother, she is said to have wept and paced the floor at night, and friends described her as deeply unhappy in her new life, and longing to return to the Mohaves. She even went to New York when she heard that Irataba, a Mohave tribal dignitary, would be traveling there in 1864. Evidently, he wasn’t too savage to prevent her from reminiscing about tribal life with him, a conversation carried on in the Mohave language. (Irataba told Olive that Topeka still missed her and hoped for her return.) She later said "we met as friends."

Her time spent with the native tribes marred the rest of Olive Oatman’s life, since she lived—literally—as a marked woman. If she had, in fact, been married to a native man—or even if she’d frolicked with any of them—the pressure to hide it would be serious, now that she was away from the so-called savages and back in conservative Western society, where a woman’s virginity was sacrosanct and even friendships between white and Native American people were frowned upon, to say nothing of sexual relationships. She already had the social fallout from the face tattoo to deal with, and the pressure of instant celebrity didn’t help.

Olive, who barely even remembered how to speak English at first, became a household name within a month, with the news of the rescue of the “young and beautiful American girl” appearing in newspapers across the nation. After the success of Stratton’s biography, she was a famous person, living under the celebrity microscope. Journalists seemed to especially focus on Olive’s appearance, pointing out her beauty as often as her tattoo. But despite her devout denial of having had any native husbands or lovers, the rumor stuck, thanks partially to a front-page story in the Los Angeles Star—which reported in 1856, a month before Olive’s return, that both Oatman girls were discovered alive and married to Mohave chiefs.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

In November of 1865, Olive married John B. Fairchild, a wealthy rancher-turned-banker, in Rochester, New York, subsequently abandoning the lecture circuit, which is how she’d met him. A few years later, the couple settled in Sherman, Texas, and adopted a baby girl named Mamie. Olive never seemed to have found happiness, though, battling depression and chronic headaches for decades to come. On the rare occasion she left her home, she’d attempt to cover her blue tattoo with makeup or veils.

Olive died of a heart attack in 1903, aged 65, and is buried in Sherman with her husband. Letters found after she died told of the psychological damage she suffered, which was often ascribed to the murder of her family, but could just as fairly be attributed to having her second family, the one she built among the Mohaves, wrenched away from her.

Although not mentioned too often these days, Olive Oatman is still occasionally paid homage, particularly via the character of Eva Toole on the AMC show Hell on Wheels, who sports a very similar backstory (and chin tattoo). Olive’s story was also loosely told in a 1965 episode of the television show Death Valley Days, starring Shary Marshall as Olive—and featuring Ronald Reagan as an Army colonel who helps her brother locate her. A 2009 biography of Oatman, The Blue Tattoo, tells her story much more faithfully. She’s also the namesake of the city of Oatman, Arizona, located on Route 66, near the Colorado River—and near the site where Oatman was released after spending her adolescence with the Mohaves.  

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Laura de Force Gordon, Pioneering Newspaper Publisher, Lawyer, and Suffragist
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock

Laura de Force Gordon's life was filled with firsts. A dedicated writer and reporter, she was the first woman to publish a daily newspaper in the United States. She was also one of the nation's first female attorneys—although it took several determined campaigns for her to earn the right to practice. She's also credited with launching the women’s suffrage movement in California. Yet her legacy is not without controversy, and an intriguing discovery long after her death has led to speculation about her personal life.

Born Laura de Force in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1838, she was a Spiritualist before she was a feminist. The 19th century religious movement focused on communication with spirits and ghosts of the deceased, and de Force gained a following as a trance speaker—someone who could channel a spirit. She spent her early adulthood traveling through her native Pennsylvania and New England, giving lectures on a variety of topics including Spiritualism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

She met her husband, Dr. Charles H. Gordon, while working as a trance speaker, and the couple decided to move to Nevada, and then California, in the late 1860s. She continued to give lectures on Spiritualism, the abolition of alcohol, and women’s rights along the way, although not without some pushback: Occasionally, men in the audience would stand up and try to debate her, but “she would turn it on them every time and the audience would roar,” according to the Lodi Historian.

Like a number of women—including Victoria Woodhull, often credited as the first woman to run for president of the United States—Gordon used her platform as a trance speaker and medium as a launching pad for a career as a women’s rights campaigner. She gave California’s first recorded speech on women and the vote in San Francisco in 1868, then helped found the California Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1870, often speaking before the state legislature on the society’s behalf. She would later serve as its president from 1884 to 1894.

Her career as a newspaperwoman began as a side effect of a failed campaign for a state senate seat. In 1871, just a year after she settled in California, the Independent Party of San Joaquin nominated her as their candidate. Women couldn’t yet vote, making a win highly unlikely, but the run was meant to make a point. Yet the male-dominated newspapers of the region didn’t take her campaign—or her work for women’s rights—seriously. Most just ignored it.

Gordon's solution was to purchase her own newspaper, the Stockton Leader. Her career as a newspaperwoman didn't end there: She converted the Stockton Leader to a daily in 1874 (in the process becoming the first woman to publish a daily paper in the nation); edited the Daily Democrat in Oakland, California; helped her sister Gertie found a weekly newspaper of her own; and served as a regular contributor to several California newspapers as well as the New Northwest of Portland, Oregon. Her status as a reporter and publisher granted her entry into a number of venues that would otherwise be closed to her as a woman, such as the State Assembly, where she had a press desk as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

"LADY LAWYERS"

But Gordon wasn’t content to remain a journalist. She wanted a career in the courtroom. In order to make that happen, though, a number of things needed to change—starting with a California law that barred anyone but white males from being admitted to the state bar. Gordon teamed up with fellow writer and activist Clara Shortridge Foltz, and the pair worked together with state lawmakers to change the rule. Their work culminated in the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in March 1878, which went beyond its name to allow admission of “any citizen or person” to the bar.

That was just the first hurdle Gordon and Foltz had to leap over to begin their law careers. Although they were now technically permitted to work as attorneys, and no specific rule prevented their law training, law schools could still prevent them—in practice, if not in theory—from getting the education they needed for successful careers.

The saga began when Foltz registered to attend classes at Hastings College of the Law, one of the first law schools in California. Her first day was full of disruptions, as the male students imitated her every move as part of a hazing ritual. On the second day, she was blocked from classes by a janitor and had to get a note from the dean before she was allowed in.

On the third day, Gordon joined her friend, and the two vowed to support each other in their attempts to get a legal education. This lasted only a day before the school’s Board of Directors asked them not to return. “There was no written explanation for the exclusion, but Dean Hastings told [Foltz] and Gordon that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” writes Barbara Babcock in her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.

A photo of Laura de Force Gordon
Ralph Lea

The pair decided to fight. They continued to attend lectures until physically barred from the classrooms by their male classmates. Babcock writes that "they came to class one day to find the men blocking their entrance, staring at them in silent hostility."

In February 1879, they took the fight to the courts and the state legislature. Gordon and Foltz devised a single-line amendment to the state constitution, which Gordon sent to her allies at the second California constitutional convention, then in progress at the time. It read, “No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession.” It was soon adopted by the convention.

At the same time, with advice from Gordon’s friend David Terry, a legal expert from Stockton, California, each woman filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Directors. The lawsuits relied on the fact that the law school was part of the state’s coeducational, taxpayer-funded public university system and should be required to admit the pair under those conditions. Gordon filed in the California Supreme Court, while Foltz filed in the state’s trial court. When the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Gordon joined Foltz in the trial court.

By many accounts, the pair argued their case eloquently and skillfully. At the end of the trial, even Delos Lake, one of the attorneys representing the law school’s board, was convinced that they would be good attorneys. “If fair ladies were to be lawyers, [I] would rather have them as associates than opponents,” he said—apparently meaning he didn't ever want to be on the other side of the dock from them again. The judge ruled in their favor, as did the California Supreme Court on appeal, and they were admitted to the college.

For both, it was an enormous victory, and they became the first two women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California.

Once she obtained admission to the bar, Gordon gave up publishing newspapers to practice law (though she remained active in reporting on suffrage). She was especially known for her murder trial defenses, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome after her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing execution in one particular trial. Legend says the Southern Pacific Railroad gave her a lifetime pass after she did some exceptional legal work for the company. She even faced off against her friend and law school ally Foltz, who worked as a prosecutor, in the trial of confessed murderer George Wheeler—one of the few trials Gordon lost. Six years after being admitted to the California bar, she was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman in the U.S., after Belva Lockwood of Washington D.C., to gain that qualification.

"A LOVER OF HER OWN SEX"

Around 1880, Gordon suffered a devastating blow in her personal life. She found out that her husband had lied to her for nearly two decades: He had never divorced his first wife, who he had abandoned in Scotland when he traveled to the U.S. When Gordon found out about her husband’s transgressions—supposedly after detectives hired by his first wife tracked him down—she divorced him, referring to herself as a widow for the remainder of her life.

Portrait of Laura de Force Gordon
Congress of Women, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1979, more than 70 years after her death, Gordon turned heads again, this time when a 100-year-old time capsule buried in San Francisco’s Washington Square was opened. In it was a copy of a travel book Gordon had written, The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them, which she had donated for the time capsule in 1879, around the same time as her divorce. On the book she had written, “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

The inscription has inspired debate. Some have interpreted this to be a declaration that she was a lesbian, while others interpret her words as a more platonic statement in favor of women’s rights. Gordon’s life offers few clues; although she never married again after her divorce, there is no surviving evidence that she had any romantic relationships with other women, either.

Gordon was not a perfect champion of rights for all. Like other members of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, she spoke out against Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, who she said were taking jobs and opportunities from white American citizens. Gordon gave a number of anti-Chinese lectures, and also made comments—including during the lawsuit against Hastings—condemning the idea that Chinese men should be allowed to do anything white women were barred from. The extent to which these attitudes were a matter of personal conviction or political expediency remains a source of debate.

In 1901, Gordon retired to Lodi, but her retirement was short-lived. She went back on the lecture circuit again in 1906, traveling until she caught a cold in Los Angeles. She died on April 5, 1907, after a brief battle with pneumonia, at the age of 68. Women in California gained the right to vote in 1911—just four years after her death.

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