Monday, April 28, 2014

What Would Olive Think of "Her" Town?

While in Laughlin, NV, for the reunion we took a day trip to Oatman, AZ, with our friends from Texas. An overly staged gun fight was starting when we arrived and I used the time to look around the uncrowded shops. A little perusing of the tourist trade, some diverse people watching, more socializing, and we were on our way back to the hotel. Just a quick visit to a place that is part of my family history.



Shifting clouds made for a pleasant day of walking around the little town of Oatman

Oatman sits in a small canyon in the Black Mountains of Arizona

My maiden name is Oatman. I grew up knowing Olive's story of survival when she and her younger sister were kidnapped following the murder of her parents and two siblings. 

As a young girl living in the desert myself, it was easy to romanticize the reality of Olive's life. Years have provided more information about my intriguing ancestor.

There are many conflicting stories about Olive, her life, the town that took her name, her family. Even the book she traveled to promote years after her return to Fort Yuma included inaccurate accounts of her relationship with the Mohave tribe. People then (like now) were more likely to read about vicious savages enslaving young pioneer women than an adopted daughter whom they saved (with her sister Mary Ann) from their hostile captors (a more violent tribe, likely the Yavapais). Olive's in-person accounts of her time with the Mohave were generally quoted as being "affectionate" and "familial".

The small town of Oatman, Arizona, was originally named Vivian after the mining company who owned the land and employed the residents. A few years later the name was changed to Oatman. While it is agreed that it was named to honor Olive's story, there continue to be multiple versions of why.

Records of mine workers show a John Oatman working there in the early 1900's and some claim that John was Olive's son by a Mohave father and that he was behind the name change to honor his mother. There is no evidence anywhere to support Olive having children. When she later married a man named John Fairchild they adopted a daughter. It is believed she was unable to bear children.

Stories circulated for years that when Mary Ann died, Olive "escaped her captors and wandered into" the small mining camp and from there she was transported to Fort Yuma by the miners. This was the alleged event that prompted the town's name change. All accounts from Olive herself, as well as records at Fort Yuma, indicate the Mohave returned her to Fort Yuma when Olive's brother Lorenzo (who she believed had died with her family) negotiated a "trade". He was waiting for her when she arrived at the fort.

The massacre and kidnapping of the Oatman family happened in 1851 and the story was told over and over for years. The attack allegedly occurred in the area that later became the Vivian Mine. Most now believe (myself included) that the town was renamed in 1909, six years following Olive's death, for the famous event, honoring the young family whose dreams of California were cut short in the desert.

Olive lived to age 65 with her husband and daughter in Texas where she died of a heart attack.

One hundred and eleven years later the town of Oatman is alive and "kickin'", and tourist dollars are mined at a much higher rate than the gold ore of it's past.

Gun fights and stagecoaches attempt the feel of the old west, between rows of motorcycles and SUVs, and captured on a thousand smart phone cameras.

The Oatman Hotel survived the fire of 1921 and is surrounded by numerous shops, eateries, a couple galleries, and lots of burros. Few people know about Olive, but most know about the burros before they arrive.

When my father and I visited Oatman years ago there was a logbook for all "Oatmans" to sign-in. Adults were required to have identification and children were vouched for by an identified Oatman adult. It was pretty cool to sign the book along side Dad. A special connection to a historical location.

If the book still exists, or if signatures are still collected, it is a well-kept secret - or a very poorly advertised opportunity.

I don't believe Olive ever saw the tent camp of Vivian so there would be no comparative reaction were she to see the little town that now has her name. However I'm pretty confident she would be embarrassed by the many pictures of her with the blue chin tattoo she was always covering with her hand. Although it was a symbol of belonging during her life with the Mohave, it marked her as damaged when she returned to the white world. She would have hoped to be remembered differently I'm sure.

Even with all the fictional accounts and the cheesy tourist shops that now makeup Oatman, it is fun to have a town named after your family. It may not be Washington, or Donner, or even Kellogg - but it's on the map.



  1. What a great story about your family. Sounds very interesting. and quite unusual as well as fun to have a town named after you. I guess Olive must have wanted to return.

    1. I always thought it was because she found out her brother was alive and that otherwise she might have stayed :-).

  2. That's pretty darn cool! It's especially cool that you got to share that with your father. There are many fun places to visit and I'm sure you'll be able to tell lots of stories once you get on the road.

  3. Dad was a snowbird for a few years and recorded a couple trips on mini-cassette. We're hoping to retrace some of his travels and see how they might have changed (luckily I saved the player with the tapes or we might never had found another one!)

  4. It is easy to et wrapped around family history, especially when there is exciting stories. Love your story!