Born into the family of Roys and Mary Ann Oatman, Olive was one of eleven siblings, including an unborn one. She grew up in the Mormon religion.
Roys Oatman was a follower of James C. Brewster, a Mormon leader who convinced his followers that he had a divine call to take them to an imaginary territory named Bashan. Bashan was actually Arizona, and it only existed in the minds of Brewster and his believers.
While on the way to Arizona, there were some misunderstandings between Brewster and some of his followers, and many of them, including the Oatman family, split from the group led by Brewster. Brewster actually ended up settling in New Mexico, once he was convinced that Bashan did not actually exist.
The Oatmans continued, commandeered by Roys Oatman, to California. Oatman dreamed about becoming rich with California gold, despite several warnings that the area was dangerous due to the presence of Yavapai Indians who were always suspicious of whites entering their lands. By January, 1851, they reached Tucson, but their horses were suffering of hunger, as were members of the Oatman family.
They lost their horses and food to Apaches, but Roys Oatman was determined to reach California, so he continued on to Casa Grande, Arizona. Convinced by Dr. John Lawrence LeConte that Apaches had not been seen in some time around Yuma, Oatman continued his family's trip to California, despite severe hunger and thirst suffered by his pregnant wife and children.
On February 18, 1851, the family settled to have dinner. Servings were bread and beans. Yavapai Indians approached them, seemingly to ask for food and tobacco. A massacre ensued, and Roys, his wife, her unborn child as well as their other children Lucy, Roys Jr. and C.A. were killed. The only survivors were Lorenzo Oatman, Olive Oatman and their seven-year-old sister, Mary Ann.
Lorenzo was badly injured with wounds to his head, and left for dead. He recuperated and returned to Casa Grande. Olive and Mary Ann were taken as slaves by the Yavapai.
They were roped together and stripped of their shoes, then forced to run the entire night without sleep. The next day, the sisters almost choked to death, overcome by the sand and dust of the Arizona desert. But they suffered even more hardship; if they began to lag behind the Yavapais, they would be beaten. When Olive and Mary Ann asked for rest and water, the Yavapais responded by pricking them with lances.
Once they arrived at their destiny, they were forced into hard labor, and into walking on hot coals without shoes. Yavapai children beat them with rods and burned them with flaming sticks.
Ultimately, the Yavapai Indians traded the sisters to the Mohave Indians for horses and other items. They once again had to survive inhuman conditions, as the Mohave forced them to walk for about ten days, only giving each one small piece of meat along the way. They arrived into what today is Needles, California. Once there, their calvary stopped for some time, as they were taken in by the family of Chief Espanesay. Chief Espanesay and his wife saw the Oatman sisters as their own daughters and gave them a home, providing them with food and love. In return for that, Olive Oatman wore the signs of the Mohave Indians on her face for the rest of her life. But during her stay at Chief Espanesay's home, Mary Ann, weakened by disease and all the hardships she had undergone, passed away.
In 1856, a Mohave named Francisco travelled to Fort Yuma, where he reported that Olive was being kept by the Mohaves. The military outpost stationed there traded some goods to the Mohave in exchange for Olive.
Her brother Lorenzo had spent five years looking for her and Mary Ann. Upon receiving the news that Olive was in Fort Yuma, he ran to her side and the two were overjoyed about seeing each other again. This meeting made headline news across the West.
In 1857, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton wrote a book about Olive and Mary Ann. The book sold 30,000 copies, a best-seller for that era.
In November, 1865, Olive married John B. Fairchild. Though it was rumored that she passed away in an asylum in New York in 1877, she actually went to live with Fairchild in Sherman, Texas, where they adopted a baby girl, Mamie.
Rumors of Olive Oatman being raped by the Yavapai were denied vehemently, leading her to declare in Stratton's book that "to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me".
In 1981, a writer named Richard Dillon reported in a famous western magazine that there was evidence that Olive had told a friend that she was married to the son of the Mohave chief and that she gave birth to two boys when married to him. Whether she was raped or not, or whether she was married and had two Mohave babies, was never determined for certain.