The Girl with the Blue Tattoo
In the mid 1800s in America, a pioneer family was killed and two girls kidnapped by attacking Indians. Five years later, one girl was returned to white civilization, but with a tribal tattoo on her face. Her case would shock and mesmerize America. But, it turns out, there was far more to the story.
Indigenous peoples around the globe have used tattooing as important cultural and religious traditions and also for decoration for nearly as long as humans learned to make art. Among the most flamboyant tattooing cultures in North America were the Mohave (also spelled Mojave).
It was fortuitous that Olive Oatman, a 14-year-old Mormon girl traveling from Illinois to California in 1851 on a wagon train, would eventually end up with the Mohave Indians and would come to bear a Mohave tribal tattoo on her face as a permanent memento of her life with them. It would later put her in the public spotlight and bring her fame she did not want. But, it would ironically, pay for her college education and eventually lead her to the love of her life, who saved her.
Five years after she was captured, she was released and integrated back into white society. Her formal portraits of a beautiful white woman with coiffed dark hair and a blue satin dress with lace collar and cuffs is a surreal juxtaposition with the jagged and barbed tattoo etched from her mouth to chin. She became a sensation and a human oddity in America. Her portrait is one of the most famous photographs from the Western frontier of the 1800s and exemplifies the clash of two cultures, red and white, new and old, on one woman’s face.
Olive Ann Oatman was born in Illinois to a very large Morman family of seven children and one more on the way when they started West for California. The Oatman family was a special sect of Mormonism that had broken away from Brigham Young in Utah and followed a man named James Brewster, who claimed to be another prophet. It was with Brewster’s entourage that the Oatmans joined up to go to California in 1850. But the group fractured again near Sante Fe in New Mexico Territory and the Oatman’s and several other families chose the southern route through Socorro and Tucson.
Around Maricopa Wells, in what is now south central Arizona, the small wagon train was told it was not safe to proceed west through very dangerous Indian territory. Roys Oatman, the father, did not head the warnings and decided to continue alone with his family. East of Yuma, six of the nine Oatman family members were annihilated in an Indian attack, along with the Oatman’s unborn baby. Olive, 14, and her little sister, Mary Ann, 7, were taken to be slaves. And their older brother, Lorenzo, 15, was left for dead. Lorenzo awoke from being very badly beaten and, finding all his family dead but two sisters missing, walked many miles to eventually find help.
Olive had always thought that her captors were Apache. Yavapai were often mistaken as Apache by settlers, variously referred to as "Mohave-Apache", "Yuma-Apache" or "Tonto-Apache.” But, later, after Olive was once again united with her people, experts surmised that the tribe was probably Yavapai. The two girls were kept as slaves to forage for food, carry water and firewood and perform medial tasks. They were treated very poorly, persecuted, and frequently beaten.
One day another tribe, the Mohaves led by Chief Espaniole, came to trade with the Yavapais. The chief’s daughter, Topeka, saw how badly the girls were treated and asked to trade for the girls. The Yavapais refused, but she eventually convinced them, offering two horses, blankets, vegetables, and beads. The girls walked 150 miles with the tribe to their village near Needles in present-day southern California. There, the girls were immediately taken in by Espaniola’s family and made to feel welcome and part of the tribe. Both Topeka and her mother, Aespaneo, cared for the girls. Throughout her later life, Olive felt deep affection and gratitude toward the two women.
Aespaneo gave the two Oatman girls plots of land to farm and fully adopted them into the tribe. They were given Mohave names and Olive was given a tribal tattoo—such markings were given to tribe members to allow their safe passage to eventually enter the land of the dead so they would be recognized as Mohave by their ancestors who had died before them.
Olive lived with the Mohave for four years. The Indians told the girls that they were free to return to white civilization at any time. Anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, who later interviewed Olive Oatman, wrote that: “The Mohaves always told her she could go to the white settlements when she pleased but they dared not go with her, fearing they might be punished for having kept a white woman so long among them, nor did they dare to let it be known that she was among them."
During her time with the Mohave, the girls had many opportunities to reach out to whites who visited the tribe or worked nearby, but Olive and Mary Ann did not do so. In February 1854, white railroad surveyors spent a week socializing with the Mohave in their camp, but the girls did not reveal themselves.
In 1855 or early 1856, there was a severe drought and many Mohave starved. Mary Ann died at age 10 or 11 and Olive nearly did. Aespaneo fed her gruel to sustain her.
When Olive was 19 years old, a Yuma Indian messenger came to the Mohave village with a request from authorities at Fort Yuma. An officer had heard rumors that there was a white girl living with the Mohave and he demanded her return. At first the Mohave resisted, denying that Olive was white. Many, including Topeka and Aesponeo, had affection for Olive. They also feared reprisals from whites.
Eventually, with Olive included in discussions, the Mohave agreed to relinquish her. The Mohave accompanied Olive in the 20-day journey to Fort Yuma, Topeka by her side as they rode. Before entering the fort, Olive was given Western woman’s clothing provided by the wife of an army officer, as she was dressed in the Mohave fashion with a tribal skirt and no other covering above her waist. When she rode into the fort, people mobbed her and cheered.
Within a few days of arriving at the fort, Olive discovered that her brother Lorenzo had survived the Indian attack five years before and had been looking for her ever since. Their reunion made headlines in newspapers across the country.
In 1857, a minister named Royal B. Stratton contacted Olive and Lorenzo Oatman to write a book about their story. He wrote Life Among the Indians, which was an immediate best-seller, selling 30,000 copies. Royalties from the book paid for Olive’s and Lorenzo’s college education at the University of the Pacific. Olive went on a national tour with Stratton to promote the book and gave lectures that fascinated white audiences. She was a curiosity, talking before crowds in flowing ante-bellum dresses and beautifully oiled hair, with the jagged blue Mohave tattoo on her chin. She was the first known white American woman to have a tattoo, as well as one of the first female public speakers in the nation.
During a lecture she was giving in Michigan in November 1865, Olive met a cattleman named John B. Fairchild. Fairchild, too, had lost a sibling in an attack by Native Americans on a cattle drive in Arizona in 1854, during the time Olive was living among the Mohave. They immediately felt a strong bond and fell in love and were soon married. Royal Stratton did not receive an invitation to her wedding and Olive never reached out to him again. Olive and John moved to Sherman, Texa, and started a prosperous life. Olive became known as the “Veiled Lady” for her charitable work, especially for local orphanages. Although they never had children of their own, they adopted a little girl named Mary Elizabeth, named after each of their mothers.
The pastor, Royal Stratton, had made a fortune off Olive Oatman’s story and did much to sensationalize the writing in the book, making salacious claims that Olive’s tattoo was a slave tattoo and that she was held captive, mistreated and sexually assaulted. The book misidentified Olive’s capturers as Apache and included fervid passages and inflammatory, anti-Indian prose. But Olive refuted those claims, denying rumors during her lifetime that she was ever raped or sexually mistreated by the Yavapai or Mohave. She insisted that Stratton's book declare that "to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me.” After Olive left, Stratton's fortune turned sour. He later died in an insane asylum.
For the rest of her life, she expressed gratitude to the Mohave and especially to the chief’s daughter, Topeka, and her mother, Aespaneo, for their kindness. And, for the rest of her life, she carried with her a small jar of hazelnuts, a staple Mohave food.
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER