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Olive Oatman: The Girl With The Blue Tattoo

1800s | October 2, 2019

Olive Oatman was given a face tattoo during her time with the Mohave Indians in the 1800s. Source: (exploringyourmind.com)

The frontier story of Olive Oatman enthralled the country when it happened in the mid-1800s, and it's still a source of fascination today. It's not the kidnapping of the teenage girl by Native Americans that makes the story so interesting. It was the permanent reminder of her ordeal that she was left with: a blue tattoo on her face. Let's look at the inspiring story of Olive Oatman. 

Like many other Mormon families, the Oatman family traveled west seeking a better home. Source: (history.churchofjesuschrist.org)

Olive Oatman, the Pioneer

Olive Oatman was one of seven children born to Royce and Mary Oatman of Illinois. In 1850, the entire Oatman family traveled to the American southwest along with other members of the Mormon religion. Along the way, there were some disputes, and the Oatmans struck out on their own. They made it to the Gila River at a point about 90 miles from present-day Yuma, Arizona, where the family was attacked. 

Olive Oatman claimed that her family was attacked by Apache Indians, but it was more likely to be Yavapai Indians. Source: (prescottazhistory.blogspot.com)

The Attack and Kidnapping

The Oatman family---Royce, Mary, and their children, who ranged in age from 17 to one---were approached by a group of Native Americans on February 18, 1851, who asked the family to hand over their guns, food, and tobacco. When Royce Oatman refused, the Native Americans attacked the family. Both Royce and Mary Oatman were killed, as were four of their seven children, including the baby. Fifteen-year-old Lorenzo was badly beaten and unconscious, so the Native Americans left him for dead, kidnapping 14-year-old Olive and her seven-year-old sister, Mary Ann. After her eventual rescue, Olive Oatman claimed the family was attacked by Apaches, but it is more likely they were Tolkepayas, who were a part of the Western Yavapai tribe. 

The site of the Oatman family massacre. Source: (rvcookingmadesimple.co)

Word of the Attack

Lorenzo Oatman eventually regained consciousness and awoke to the horror of seeing his family slaughtered and his sisters missing. Despite his injuries, Lorenzo managed to make his way to a nearby settlement, where he shared his story and received treatment for his injuries. A few days later, he led a group of men from the village back to the site of the massacre. The soil was too hard and rocky for them to dig proper graves, so the group stacked stones over the bodies to form a cairn. They still couldn't find any sign of Olive or Mary Ann, leading them to the conclusion that the girls had been taken by the Native Americans. 

The Native Americans took the Oatman girls to their camp. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Life as a Captive

Olive Oatman and her sister were taken to an Indian village in the Harquahala Mountains. There, they were treated poorly by the native people and forced to work, carrying wood and jugs of water. They endured beatings and abuse from their captors for more than a year. 

The sisters were traded to the Mohave Indians. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

Traded to the Mohave Indians

About a year into the girls' captivity, a band of Mojave Indians came to the village. They offered to trade horses, blankets, food, and other items in exchange for the two white girls. From there, Olive said, the sisters had to walk for many days until they reached the Mojave village in present-day Needles, California. The girls were taken in by the kindly wife and daughter of the village chief, who cared for the girls. Later, Olive spoke fondly of the women and of the Mojave people in general. 

Olive Oatman received a blue chin tattoo. Source: (mentalfloss.com)

Tattooed

During their time with the Mojave people, both Olive Oatman and her sister were given facial tattoos. Using blue cactus dye, the sisters' chins were adorned with a series of lines and shapes that Olive claimed was the Mojave custom of marking slaves. In reality, the Mojave people used facial tattoos as a way to indicate that a person was a member of the tribe after they died and entered the afterlife so they could be reunited with their departed ancestors. With that in mind, it seems as though the chin tattoos were more of a way of showing that the Oatman sisters had been accepted into the tribe. 

The region around Needles, California, experienced a severe drought. Source: (en.wikipedia.com)

The Death of Mary Ann Oatman

During their time with the Mojave people, the Oatman girls were treated well. However, sometime around 1855 or 1856, the region experienced a devastating drought, and food became scarce. Olive reported that her sister died of starvation during that time. She was maybe 10 or 11 years old. 

The railroad brought more and more white people close to Oatman's village. Source: (ebay.com)

Hiding Her Identity

Olive Oatman didn't know that her brother, Lorenzo, had survived the attack on her family. For the past several years, she believed that her entire family, save for Mary Ann, had been slaughtered. That might be why she didn't reveal herself to the group of white railroad surveyors who lived near her village for more than a week in February 1854. She had become fully assimilated into the Mojave culture. She had even taken a new name, Oach. 

The nation was enthralled with the story of Olive Oatman's release. Source: (dccourier.com)

Olive’s Release

Five years after her kidnapping, when she was 19 years old, Olive Oatman was released after a messenger arrived at the village with word that the authorities at Fort Yuma in Arizona had learned that a white woman was living among the Mojave people. They demanded that the Mojave either release her or send her to Fort Yuma to testify that she wanted to stay with them. It took quite a bit of persuading, but Olive Oatman finally agreed to travel to Fort Yuma, a journey that took more than two weeks. Before she reached the fort, Olive was given suitable clothing to wear because the traditional Mohave attire was a simple skirt with no top. 

A bust engraving of Olive Oatman and the title page of the book Captivity of the Oatman Girls: being an interesting narrative rife among the Apache and Mohave Indians. Source: (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Reunited with Her Brother

Olive Oatman was soon reunited with her brother, Lorenzo, who she had thought was dead. Their reunion was extensively covered by the press, and the story was circulated around the world. She told reporters about the kindness of the Mojave people and denied rumors that she had been assaulted during her captivity. A book about her ordeal became a bestseller, and her share of the profits allowed her and her brother to attend the University of the Pacific. In 1865, Olive Oatman married a rancher named John Fairchild and moved with him to Sherman, Texas, where they adopted a baby girl after a decade of marriage. Though it might seem that the remainder of Olive Oatman's life before she died in Texas at the age of 65 was that of an ordinary southern white woman despite her tattoos, she never shed all of her adopted culture. Her kitchen always held a jar of hazelnuts, a staple Mojave food.

Tags: Blue Tattoo | Olive Oatman

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.