The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

olive

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.

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The life of Olive Oatman presents an incredibly compelling story, both for her contemporary peers and for the modern day reader. As a young teenager, she travelled across the American frontier with her family of Brewsterites – an historical offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – when her family was set upon by a small group of warriors from the Yavapai First Nation. After living with them as a slave for about a year, she was traded to the Mojave Indians, and spent the next four years with them, eventually being traded back to whites at a nearby military post.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to separate fact and fiction from Olive’s story. There is no “true” original account. Olive herself was barely literate when she was brought back to “civilization” and was unable to write her book herself. It was ghost written by a Methodist minister who had ulterior motives.

Also, Olive could provide herself with a much more secure future by telling the people what they wanted to hear. Writing and speaking fondly about her time with the Mojave, who it is generally acknowledged treated her well and adopted her, would not have ingratiated her with the families supporting Olive through the trauma of reintegration into white society.

Mifflin’s account of Oatman’s story is intriguing, and it is the first that I have heard this point in history. However, some of the facts are most certainly incorrect, not just because of a lack of primary documentation on which to base her conclusions, but also due to laziness during the research and editing processes. For example, Mifflin states that Prophet Joseph Smith was lynched, but it is well known that he was shot to death. Simple mistakes like this made it difficult for me to fully accept Miflin’s version of events, given that there is so much of it I could not fact check.

Olive Oatman is mostly depicted through the book as a survivor, but not a heroine. She certainly seems to have suffered from PTSD – and no wonder given everything she experienced – but she does very little to try to take control of her life at any point. She doesn’t fight back or try to escape, she doesn’t try to return to the Mojave, she doesn’t speak fondly of the Mojave and her time there, but also never appears to feel at home in white society either. At times through this book, I actually felt angry with her for her treatment of the Mojave after she was “rescued”. It certainly reads as if she would have preferred to stay and her later treatment of them appears callous and a betrayal.

Overall, I enjoyed The Blue Tattoo and learning about this period in history. There is much discussion in the book about feminism and white-Indian relations during that era as well, which was interesting. However, the author had a tendency to write entire chapters on the individuals surrounding Olive Oatman, which I found tedious and boring. IMHO, this book would have been better if it would have stayed more focused on Olive’s story.

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