The Blue Tattoo: The Story of Olive Oatman
June 25, 2009
In this segment, author and English professor Margot Mifflin talks about her new book "The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman." Oatman was captured and lived as a slave with the Yavapai Indians until she was traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her on the chin and raised her as their own.
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"Bookshelf" focuses on interviews and readings from faculty, alumni, and visiting authors.
This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College. In this segment, author and English professor Margot Mifflin talks about her new book "The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman."
The book tells the story of a young Mormon girl whose family was massacred by Indians during the westward expansion of the 1800s. Oatman was captured and lived as a slave with the Yavapai Indians until she was traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her on the chin and raised her as their own.
Five years later, Oatman was ransomed and returned to white society. Her story was picked up by a Methodist minister who wrote a book about her life and accompanied Oatman on the lecture circuit. Later, she settled down with a wealthy Texas banker, but she could never erase the mark of her captivity, the blue tattoo.
Olive Oatman was a pioneer who was traveling west on a wagon train with her Mormon family in the 1850s. Her family was attacked by Indians and most of them were killed. And she was captured by Yavapai Indians. Oatman and her sister, Marianne, were captured together. They spent a year with the Yavapai and were considered slaves and worked for them. And then were traded to the Mohave a year later who took them because they wanted to help them.
And the Mohave raised them as Mohave Indians, tattooed them on the face, which was a Mohave tradition and a tradition for a number of California Indian tribes of the period. And Marianne died during the captivity. Olive was ransomed back five years later. So, she was 19 when she returned to white society with this tattoo on her face.
Her story had been written a number of different ways, all contradictory. The Reverend, who wrote her story in the late 1850s after her ransom, sort of spun it as a story about how this innocent white girl was captured by horrible Indians and how they abused her by holding her against her will. And that she was a slave to them. But what I found was that in the newspaper interviews she gave before this man got to her, she said she was always free to go.
And my argument in this book is that she didn't believe she had any family to go back to. She was captured at a formative age. There have been studies done about captives. There's no standard formula. But girls, historically, who have been captured by the age of 13 or 14, which is where she was, she was 14, are young enough that they can assimilate to the tribes that took them. And so, that combined with the fact that she had no family to return to and the fact that there's very good evidence, again, she told these stories herself that the Mohave were really good to her.
For example, when her sister died of starvation during a famine, her Mohave mother actually really tried to help her and gave her food that she didn't give to other children in the family who were also in bad shape. And Olive actually claimed that her Mohave mother, whose name was Aespaneo, saved her life.
So, there are lots of anecdotes like this that Olive told before the Reverend Stratton got to her that indicate she was well integrated to the tribe. And that she probably didn't want to come back.
When she returned, people were aware of her story—or at least in California were aware that she had been taken—and that her brother had escaped the massacre, which she didn't know. She thought he'd been left for dead. Her brother escaped and for the five years that she was gone, he tried to retrieve her and went out on these scouting expeditions to try to find her.
But the thing is, he was only 16 when he was left without a family. And didn't really have the resources to try to get her. So, by the time she was ransomed back, he was 21 and that was a big California news story that she was returned. And people were very interested in what she would be like. They wanted to know—is she a wild Indian? And when they saw her tattoo, everybody remarked on it and said, "You know, she's quite beautiful. But, of course, she's permanently marred by this tattoo."
You can imagine how unusual it was for somebody not only to be tattooed then, but to be tattooed on the face. So, the papers told about how people stared at her and treated her like a wild animal. And, you know, she was considered a freak. But she was also a victim, and people were sympathetic to her.
After she was ransomed, she was kept or, you know, sort of taken into the home of a family in Los Angeles who had been on the original wagon train with her before the various members of the train split up and her father went into the desert and met his fate. And so, she lived with a family in L.A. briefly. Then her cousin from Oregon came and retrieved her and her brother.
And she lived there for a year, which was a year during which Stratton documented her story. So, that was about 1857. And the book was a big hit. First, it was published in California. Then Stratton realized, oh, we can sell more. He found publishers in other cities so it became a national event. And then he took her back to New York and put her on the lecture circuit where she went around and talked to people. It was sort of an educational freak show. People were coming partly to see what she looked like, but partly because her story was so exotic.
Not uniquely exotic because people had heard of other Indian captives. But they didn't typically go on the lecture circuit to go talk about it. So, it's interesting to see how the handbills that advertise her lectures evolve over the maybe seven or nine years that she was lecturing. First it's Stratton's lecture, and he's telling about her story. Then at some point, he realized that it wasn't his story. He had to give it over to her. So, she became the central attraction, and Stratton stepped back and let her deliver these lectures, which she continued to do for I think it was seven years.
And the handbills are interesting to examine because of the transition first from the lectures being delivered by Stratton and then being delivered by Olive. At some point, the handbills begin to vary between Olive giving these lectures on the Mohave Indians almost as this kind of accidental anthropologist who was able to study them at a really interesting point in their history just before they were pushed off their land and herded onto reservations and kind of lost their culture on some level for good.
Oatman's story was one of the last captivity stories that was written. There were a few more through the late nineteenth century until basically the point at which Native Americans were pretty much stomped out for good. And they weren't in any position to be capturing anyone. But Oatman's was unique in the sense that she had the tattoo.
So, she was unlike other captives in the sense that she couldn't go back to white society and not be recognized as a captive. Other people could return and reassimilate. But she was permanently marked. And so that set her apart forever. And she did have some mental and emotional problems throughout her life that almost certainly had to do with having been transferred culture to culture, you know, from the whites to the Mohaves and back to the whites again.
She experienced two phases of assimilation. First, the severe trauma of watching her family get killed, being captured, being a slave, seeing her sister die. Then bonding with the Mohaves and being robbed away from them three or four years later.
So, she did okay. She married a wealthy banker. They adopted a child together. They lived in Texas. They were fairly well- to-do. And she still really struggled.
I do theorize in the book that some of her troubles adjusting may have had to do with the fact that not only the obvious facts of her captivity but that Mohave women were much freer physically, and they enjoyed many more rights equal to men than white women did. And the other piece of it, along with the obvious sort of adjustments she had to make as a captive going back to white society, was that when she went back, she became a public woman who was on her own giving these lectures.
She was by no means a feminist. She was more likely an anti-feminist in the sense that she would say to women, "You have wonderful homes and husbands. And I wish that I could have had your situation. And you don't want to experience what I've had." But some of what she had was liberating. And so, she had to make that adjustment as well, marrying a man, becoming a mother, living in a quiet town, and running the household was a lot different from what she experienced first as a Mohave and then as a career woman for seven or eight or nine years. And I think that that made it hard for her later life.
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