The picture of Olive Oatman on the cover of Margot Mifflin‘s The Blue Tattoo is arresting: a dark-haired, beautiful woman, covered from neck to wrists to the floor in an elaborate Victorian-era dress stares forward, wearing a Mohave chin tattoo. Mifflin does a careful job of reconstructing the fascinating story behind how this woman came to wear that tattoo, ascertaining the most accurate possible accounting of the 1851 murder of Oatman’s family near Yuma, Arizona, her captivity by a band of Yavapai Indians, her sale to the Mohaves, and Oatman’s eventual return to white society.
This story riveted Olive Oatman’s contemporaries, and has been told by many, beginning with Royal B. Stratton’s 1857 bestseller, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, “the biography he ghostwrote for [Olive],” adding plenty of his own interpretation and embellishment of her experience. As Mifflin writes, Olive Oatman’s story “was the subject of a 1965 episode of Death Valley Days (starring Ronald Reagan), an Elmore Leonard story, two novels, and four children’s books, including a Christian title sold with a collectible Oatman figurine.”
Mifflin sets out to separate as best she can the fact from the fiction, trying to deduce from what is known of Mohave culture at that time what Oatman’s life may have really been like. Although in the ghostwritten biography, Olive Oatman disparaged the Mohave culture (though not her adoptive family) in order to fit back into white society, Mifflin finds plenty of evidence to suggest that Olive was happily living with the tribe, willingly accepted the tattoo, and neglected some opportunities to make her situation known to white people the tribe encountered.
Olive Oatman was born into a Mormon family who followed the teachings of James Colin Brewster, who “claimed to have divine revelations that Mormon founder Joseph Smith deemed phony.” While Brigham Young’s followers made their way to thriving Salt Lake City, the Brewsterites hewed to the south, crossing treacherous stretches of desert on the way to their eventual goal of California. The Oatman family, consisting of parents Royce and Mary Ann and their seven children, including then 13-year-old Olive and her seven-year-old sister Mary Ann, were traveling with a group of Brewsterites that was beset by hardships, such as livestock theft by Indians. The group squabbled, and the Oatmans set out on their own through a stretch of desert believed to be patrolled by Apaches.
“Their situation was desperate. Their horse had died, and their scant remaining cattle were so weak that some of the children, aged two to seventeen, had been forced to walk long stretches of their route from Maricopa Wells, eighty miles back. They were on a barely blazed trail eroded by recent storms. The food they’d packed under the floor of their prairie schooners before starting west was nearly spent…They had abandoned one of their wagons in New Mexico after their oxen had dwindled to the point where they had no way to pull it.”
Some Indians that were most likely Yavapai asked them for food, and when Royce refused to give all that they had, the Indians bludgeoned most of the family to death, sparing only Olive and little Mary Ann, whom they marched barefoot through the desert to become the tribe’s slaves. The Oatmans’ brother Lorenzo was left for dead, beaten and thrown into a ravine, but although Olive and Mary Ann didn’t know it, he survived after crawling for help.
The Yavapais treated the girls harshly, beating them and working them intensely. After a year, the Yavapais sold them to the Mohaves, through their representative, a chief’s daughter named Topeka. Topeka’s family adopted the girls, her parents treated them as daughters, and from what Mifflin can deduce through Oatman’s accounts of what happened, they readily accepted this new family. Mifflin notes that the Mohaves never forced the ritual face tattoos on anyone, and the procedure took several days of participation and care on the behalf of the person being tattooed, so Olive must have agreed to it.
Mary Ann remained weak from her mistreatment, and succumbed to starvation during a famine year, but Olive’s adopted mother shared with her a hidden stock of food and she survived. Lorenzo persisted in looking for his sisters, and eventually Olive was located and ransomed back, though not without regret on her part.
Mifflin convincingly debunks rumors that were spread about Oatman, such as that she was married to a Mohave chief and gave up two children when she left the tribe. As interesting as the sensational rumors that were not true are the details that were omitted from Oatman’s story at the time, probably because they would have been too shocking for Victorian audiences and they would have made integration back into white society more difficult for Oatman. For example, Olive’s Mohave nickname, Spantsa, means “‘rotten vagina’ or ‘sore’ vagina,” which may mean that she was “unhygienic by comparison to the Mohaves,” or according to one expert on Mohave culture, “the name indicates that she was very sexually active.”
It’s easy to understand how Olive Oatman’s experiences fueled so many artistic recreations. It seems it would have been impossible to survive her situation without hope, and since she believed her entire family to be dead, and didn’t think there would be any way to return to the world she’d known, it’s only natural that that hope would have been placed in creating as pleasant a life as possible with the Mohaves. Of course she couldn’t say that to her white contemporaries. As Margot Mifflin demonstrates in her absorbing book, The Blue Tattoo, the truth about Olive Oatman is more complicated than the many fictions about her.