Olive Oatman was part of the nine member Royce Oatman family who left the relative safety of a westbound wagontrain in 1851 and headed out alone on the Gila Trail. The Gila Trail was one of the many routes used by settlers and gold-hungry miners to get to the west. Westerly routes from Santa Fe and El Paso joined in Apache country to form the Gila Trail.
West of Gila Bend, Arizona their wagon was attacked by Yavapai Indians. All were killed except for one son who escaped and two sisters who were captured. After a year the girls were traded to the Mohave Indian tribe. The Mohave's of the lower Colorado River were unique in many ways. They were one of the few tribes of this area who relied on farming and were very warlike. As with most North American Indians, they were fond of personal adornment. Two of their favorites were tattooing and body painting. Men and women would tattoo their chins and sometimes their foreheads. Both sexes would also paint striking designs on their faces, hair and body. There was no special guild of tattooists and most tattooing was done on people between the ages of 20 and 30. Part of the Mohave belief is that any man or woman without a tattoo on the face would be refused entrance to Sil¹aid, the land of the dead. Their belief was so strong that black paint would be rubbed on the tattoo marks of the dead so they were more visible on judgment day. Because of this belief, many old folks who had not been tattooed in their youth were tattooed on their deathbeds.
The younger of the sisters died, but Olive survived until she was ransomed in 1856 by the United States Government at Ft. Yuma. The Oatman massacre and the telling of the story thereafter, did little to stem the tide of westbound immigrants, and to this day, the place where the Oatman¹s wagon was attacked is known as Oatman Flats
Photos shortly after her ransom showed her in a cabinet style photo wearing a black dress with her hair pulled back and Mohave style tattooing on her chin; five vertical lines, with two triangles set at right angles to the two outer lines. Published accounts of Olive¹s capture and torture were quickly publicized, and for a while, she displayed her tattooing on a cross country lecture tour.