The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Mifflin
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Publication Date: 2011
The Short Version:
The story of a young woman who spent 5 years with the Yavapai and Mohave tribes after her family was murdered on their way west in 1851.
Why I Read It:
Powell’s books tweeted a link to a review on their site and it intrigued me enough to request if from the libarary.
From the publisher:
In 1851 Olive Oatman was a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion, with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, caught between cultures. The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. Orphaned when her family was brutally killed by Yavapai Indians, Oatman lived as a slave to her captors for a year before being traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her face and raised her as their own. She was fully assimilated and perfectly happy when, at nineteen, she was ransomed back to white society. She became an instant celebrity, but the price of fame was high and the pain of her ruptured childhood lasted a lifetime.
Based on historical records, including letters and diaries of Oatman’s friends and relatives, The Blue Tattoo is the first book to examine her life from her childhood in Illinois—including the massacre, her captivity, and her return to white society—to her later years as a wealthy banker’s wife in Texas.
Oatman’s story has since become legend, inspiring artworks, fiction, film, radio plays, and even an episode of Death Valley Days starring Ronald Reagan. Its themes, from the perils of religious utopianism to the permeable border between civilization and savagery, are deeply rooted in the American psyche. Oatman’s blue tattoo was a cultural symbol that evoked both the imprint of her Mohave past and the lingering scars of westward expansion. It also served as a reminder of her deepest secret, fully explored here for the first time: she never wanted to go home.
The tweet from Powell’s with a link to their review sparked my interest and not just for me. While I waited to get to the top of the hold list at the library I read up about Olive online. I’ve heard about other stories of women or children who for a variety of reasons lived with Native American tribes for years. Some returned willingly to the Whites, others not.
Olive’s story has some differences. She and her younger sister were taken and enslaved by the Yavapai who later traded them to the Mohave. Her sister died of starvation while they were with the Mohave.
Olive received her distinctive chin tattoos from the Mohave and while speculation as to the purpose of the tattooing was part of the legend of Olive Oatman, Mifflin falls on the side of it signifying her acceptance by and assimilation into the Mohave people.
After she was returned to the world of the whites five years after her family’s massacre, Olive became a celebrity with a story that was taken out of her control. Her story as written by a pastor she and her surviving brother met was filled with the author’s own prejudices and marketed to meet the popular opinions of day. He took her on tour giving speeches and lectures to promote the book and to promote the destruction of the Native American peoples.
Mifflin’s book is a bit dry but still interesting. There is a lot of uncertainty as to the truth of Olive’s experience and feelings but the author appears to have done a tremendous amount of research and tries to separate fact from legend where she can.
Apparently the TV show Hell on Wheels has a character based a bit on Olive. I’ve seen images from the show and she definitely has chin tattoos that look exactly like Olives. I think I’m going to have to check out the show.