Olive Oatman 1838–1903

Benjamin F. Powelson (1823–1885)
Albumen silver print, c. 1863

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

In the spring of 1851, a band of Apache men in present-day Arizona captured thirteen-year-old Olive Oatman and her younger sister. They killed or seriously injured the rest of the family during the attack. At the time, the Oatman family—originally from Illinois—was headed west to California to start their lives anew. Shortly thereafter the Apache sold the two sisters to a Mohave family.

While living with this family, Oatman was tattooed on the chin, a custom common among members of the tribe. In 1856, after enduring five years in captivity and the death of her sister, Oatman had her freedom negotiated, and she was given over to authorities at Fort Yuma. Accounts of her release were published widely, and her biography became a best-seller.

Though Oatman stated that her Mohave family treated her well, stories such as hers reinforced commonly held assumptions that Native Americans were violent savages.