Olive Oatman and The Blue Tattoo
In Search of the Promise Land
Olive Oatman and the story of her Blue Tattoo begins in the 1850’s when she and her Mormon family set out in search of the “Land of Bashan”. For those not well versed in Mormon History, I am going to fill you in where it is relevant to Olive’s story. The Church of Christ, later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith around 1817 in upstate New York. During this time the country was in a state of revivalism. Smith claims to have had visions of God and Jesus Christ which led him to uncover some golden plates, which he later transcribed as the Book of Mormon, and compelled him to move his clan west in search of Zion, or the promised land. They first settled in Independence, Missouri, but after being run out of town ended up resettled in Illinois. It’s in Nauvoo, Illinois that Smith angered local non-Mormons when he destroyed a newspaper criticizing his favor for polygamy as well as his power in the town. He was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois in 1844 and subsequently killed when a mob stormed the jail. That is Joseph Smith in a nut shell…a very small nut shell. Now enters the Oatman family.
Royce Oatman and Mary Ann Oatman, formerly Mary Ann Sperry, had both come from wealthy, well-educated families. At the time of Joseph Smith’s death they were living in Fulton, Illinois about 120 miles north of Nauvoo. This was somewhat of a tumultuous time for Mormon’s in that they were without a leader and of course there were many men vying for the job. You had Sidney Rigdon who Royce Oatman was leaning toward. Brigham Young, who Mary Ann Oatman’s family was backing and then there was this other man, James C. Brewster. After Royce had a rather peculiar meeting with Rigdon, his candidate of choice, he decided to change is allegiance to the lesser known Brewster and join other fellow Brewsterites in their own westerly quest for Zion.
A little bit about Brewster. Years earlier in 1837, James Colin Brewster, who was 11 at the time, received his own divine revelation from the same angel that had spoken to Smith. Smith of course debunks these revelations as fake, but Brewster persists and eventually is thrown out of the Latter Day Saints. By the time Smith dies, Brewster has his own following and his own revelation to head West. Brewster published in his publication The Olive Branch that his followers would receive their heavenly rewards in the “valley of the Gila and Colorado river” so in 1849 Royce Oatman and family sold all their possessions to buy cattle, supplies and wagons and off they went beginning their journey along the Santa Fe Trail. In late June they landed in Independence, Missouri where they would meet up with Brewster and the rest of their pary. After weeks of waiting and frustration the rest of the party arrives and they depart. It is now mid July and pretty late in the season to be embarking on a cross country journey, but they push on.
While on the trail there was a perceived threat of Indians. Previous parties had met their fate at the hand of angry Apaches and other tribes fighting for their lands and the right to exist, but there were other dangers as well such as, snake bites, dehydration, disease bread among wet linens and close quarters as well as the occasional wagon mishap such as child ran over by wagon or women’s long skirt entangled in wheel ultimately pulling her to her death…just to name a few, but there was also another dark cloud looming and it appeared to be the traveling party itself. Tensions began to rise due to the fear of Indians or just over all anxiety about the direction they were headed, both physically and spiritually. Along the way, somewhere around modern-day Kansas, Brewster has another revelation that tells him the promised land is really in Socorro, New Mexico near the banks of the Rio Grande, about 600 miles closer. Sounds to me like someone was getting tired of wagon travel. Although the group remained together a while longer, tensions where high and Brewster kept changing his mind on where he wanted to settle.
The main motivation for keeping the party together was due to the increase in Indian encounters and stories of their heightened hostility the further west they went. In early October the arguments had reached a fever pitch and Royce Oatman along with about 30 other people decided to part ways as Brewster and the rest of the Brewsterites headed south to Socorro where they purchased land and began building a new settlement called Colonia. The Oatmans along with a few other families kept on the Santa Fe trail. Olive Oatman was about 14 and this, as she later wrote, “were the beginnings of our sorrow.” Eventually the small party ends up in Socorro as well, needing to make some fast cash and get new supplies, but shortly they are back on road traveling down Col. Phillip St. George Cookes 1846 route. It was late November and it snowed. Indians approached their camp daily and in the evenings their cattle and an occasional horse would go missing, which forced the group to leave behind wagons and other valuable belongings.
The group traveled on and came to Mariocopa Wells, a common stop on the trail between Texas and California. They came upon terrible conditions after a long winter drought, the area inhabited by the local Mariocopa and Pima Indians starving and reeling after recent Apache Indian attacks. The Mariocopa and Pima were friendly so the majority of the group had planned to stay and urged the Oatmans to do the same. Mary Ann Oatman was pregnant with her eighth child and due any day, but with only about 190 miles left to go Royce was adamant about continuing on, so the Oatmans along with two oxen and four milk cows set out alone, into the dessert on the Gila trail.
The Beginning of Sorrow
So the Oatman’s forged on. As they traveled along their situation took a turn for the worse. Along the trail road they came upon a lime rock mesa. The oxen were too tired to make the steep incline, so they decided to empty the wagons, let the oxen carry empty wagons to the top and they would then reload. After the wagons had been pushed up the hill and reloaded for the decent, it was 15 year old Lorenzo Oatman who noticed movement from below. Olive counted 19 Indians. The Indians approached seeming friendly, asking for food. Food the Oatmans didn’t have to spare, but Royce, not wanting any trouble agreed to give them some of their provisions. These were not the Apache Indians everyone feared, but rather Yvapais Indians. They asked for tobacco and shared a pipe…Royce continued to ensure his children that the Indians were friendly all the while continuing to load the wagons. They were ready to go. Suddenly the Indians pulled clubs and long knives from under their skirts and attacked them. Six out of the eight Oatmans were bludgeoned and stabbed. Fourteen year old Olive and her seven year old Mary Ann were spared, at least for the moment, and sat by while the strangers raided their wagons and stole their supplies. Suddenly Lorenzo stirred as the looters yanked of his shoes and hat, so they dragged him by his feet to the edge of the mesa and threw him over the side.
Forced to remove their shoes for fear of leaving footprints, Olive, Mary Ann and their captors began the long walk, four days and four nights, to the Yavapais home The Yavapai were mountain dwellers and life among them was tough, The girls were taught to carry water, collect wood bundles and transport them on their head, dig for roots and also tend to the tribes children. They were often neglected fed scraps and whipped when they weren’t working hard enough. Mary Ann, who was already sickly by nature, would often fall ill do to the conditions. As time went on the girls started to learn the Yavapais language easing communication and slowly the Indians began to take a liking to the girls, asking them questions about white people and white customs. Their life with the Yavapais became a little easier. A year into their life with the Yavapais a Mohave tribe came around on their yearly trading trip. After some negotiating…they trade two horses, some blankets, beads and vegetables for the two Oatman girls. It was later known that the Mohave felt sorry for the girls and basically saved them from the abuse and neglect they had been experiencing with the Yavapais. For ten days they walked through the desserts of Arizona before reaching the Mohave camp.
Real quick I want to go back to the wagon raid. The Oatmans had all been left for dead, however due to some miracle, Lorenzo Oatman who had been bludgeoned and tossed aside, survives and is rescued by some friendly Indians who recognize him from the time spent back in Mariocopa. Through the kindness of strangers and other emigrants along the Gila Trail, he is nursed back to health and eventually taken off to San Diego in hopes of a better life,
So back to Olive and Mary Ann. The Mohave were a lot different than the Yavapais. For one, they were tall and handsome, athletic looking living in these lush valleys with lots of food while the Yavapais were described as “hideous” living in the mountains among rocks and famine. The Mohaves were totally monogamous, but they didn’t have what we would consider a typical marriage and adultery was common. If you lived with someone you were married and if you moved out you were divorced. The women, of course, always took the children with them from home to home and it wasn’t uncommon for a Mohave man to raise another Mohave man’s children.
I just want to share a little anecdote that is for adult eyes only. The Mohave were really sexually active and open about sex. Sometimes even doing it in public and in front of their kids. This made Olive really uncomfortable. I’m sure this was a shock to her Mormon sensibilities. As an outsider she was probably exempt from these sexcapades, or at least at first, but there is some evidence that she was welcomed. Eventually she was given a clan name which shows that she was adopted in. She was primarily known as Aliutman…which is Olive and Oatman combined…she was also often called “Oach” which was her adopted families clan name. The Mohaves also really liked nicknames…bawdy nicknames typically referring to genitalia like “Cock with a blue bead”…or one Mohave women was nicknamed “Charcoal Testicle” because she supposedly liked sex so much she burned men’s testicles. At some point Olive got the nickname “Spantsa” which meant “Rotten” or “Sore Vagina”. Some speculated she was give this name beacuse whites didn’t bathe as much as the Mohave or maybe it was that she had so much sex her vagina was sore, or that she was with someone so virile that her vagina was sore, but this maybe an indication of her assimilation into their culture.
The Mohave religion was based on origins and guidance rather than worship. They didn’t have gods or religious ceremonies but focused rather on dreams and legends. One aspect of their faith were tattoos. They believed anyone without a facial tattoo would not be transported to the afterlife. So one day after digging roots, two Mohave doctors approach Olive outside the home she was staying and gave her a chin tattoo…a blue tattoo. This is done by pricking the skin of the chin with a cactus thorn until it bleeds and then with a pulverized blue stone is smeared onto the bloody area. Apparently, the worst part is the healing process because you can’t really move your mouth otherwise you’ll tear open the scabs. There isn’t any record of Mary Ann and whether or not she got a tattoo, she was a sickly girl and a bit younger so maybe she was exempt. Olive’s tattoo was done pretty well, which might mean she was open to the process and sat really still. I mean it was on her face soooo I might sit still for that.
From 1851 to around 1853 the Mohave tribe had years of happiness and great harvest. Also during this time they would trade in abundance with parties of white explorers coming through the area. Olive and Mary Ann had plenty of time to reveal themselves or try to escape with these white folk, but they didn’t. In 1855 things took a turn for the worse with an exceptionally bad harvest. The tribe began starving and people, mostly children began to die. Eleven year old Mary Ann, who as previously mentioned as a sickly child gave in to her hunger and she passed away. Olive and her adoptive mother Aespaneo mourned loudly for Mary Ann and after some begging, Olive was allowed to bury Mary Ann in their favorite garden plot even after protests from the Mohave who have a tradition of cremation. It is at this point that Olive writes in her memoir that the idea of leaving the tribe diminishes and she no longer thinks about being rescued. She had embraced the Mohave as her family and the valley as her home.
Free To Leave
All the while Olive’s brother Lorenzo has now made his way to San Francisco, doing odd jobs, trying to get to school and learn to read and write. He is semi-literate at the age of 15. The man he had traveled to San Francisco with decided to head back east to be with family, leaving Lorenzo all alone once again. With what little writing he knew, he starts a letter writing campaign to try and see if he can get to help him retrieve his sisters. In the Summer of 1854, the first letter is sent to Fort Yuma and the next to the California Government in request of assistance. That following spring it is confirmed by a Quechan Indian, well-known and well-liked among the officers at Fort Yuma, that the Oatman girls had been spotted and were living among the Mohave. After this news a bunch of rumors start flowing and people start talking. With the help of Col. Martin Burke, Commanding officer at Fort Yuma, a travel pass is issued for the retrieval of the woman known as “Spantsa”, which we know is not a very nice nickname. The date on the travel pass is January 27th 1856.
Francisco, Yuma Indian
Bearer of this, goes to the Mohave nation to obtain a white woman there named Spantsa it is desirable she should come to this post or send her reason why she does not wish to come.
There was some hesitation on the part of the commanding officer on whether the woman even wanted to be rescued, after all, the soldiers of Fort Yuma had been trading with the Mohave and had been hanging hanging out with them for years and yet she never made herself known. Francisco heads to the Mohave village where they held a great council for two days on what to do. Espaniola, the chief of the tribe and Olive’s adoptive father, did not want to give her up. Francisco was trying anything, not totally sure why. probably in fear of white retaliation or personal gain of some sort, but eventually Espaniola gives in and Olive is traded for two horses, blankets and beads. Espaniola instructs Musk Melon and Topeka, two trusted Mohaves to escort Olive back to civilization and so they travel for ten days back to the fort.
Before she enters Fort Yuma she is approached by a Yuma resident, Henry Grinnell. He was the resident carpenter and friendly with Indians so they sent him across the river to retrieve Olive. When he approaches her, she starts to cry, but she didn’t resist. He led her to the river to bathe and wash off her face paint and hair dye and put on a calico dress given by one of the officer’s wives. I want to mention she also now has vertical tattoos down both of the upper portions of each arm.
At 19, 5 years after her abduction she reenters Fort Yuma and civilization. First, she is taken to meet Commander Burke for a formal interview. She has lost a lot of her English and has a hard time responding to questions, but when asked about her captors, still holding on to the narrative that it was Apache and not Yavapais, she said they did not treat her well and when asked about her Mohave hosts she said, “very well”.
Life After Mohave
Weeks later Lorenzo finally gets word that his sister had been found and learns of the death of Mary Ann, He hurries down to Fort Yuma where they are finally reunited, and Lorenzo says, you’re coming back with me to California and so she did. Of course once she arrives back in California it’s a 19th century media frenzy. Everyone wanted to get a piece of the Olive Oatman. I want to read an excerpt from Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo that talks about the newspapers before photojournalism was a thing and share the descriptions given of Olive at the time.
“The rescued lady is said to be very fin in appearance with agreeable manners, but has entirely forgotten her native language,” wrote the San Francisco Weekly Chronicle. “Her hands, writst and arms are largely developed,” observed the San Fran Herald. “The hair for the young lady, of light golden color, the Indians dyed it black- using the bark of mesquite tree…She is more fully developed than many girls of twenty.” The star also called her a “rather pretty girl” but had been “disfigured by tattooed lines on the chin.” Also, Olive answered the question that everyone was dying to know…had she been made a wife and Olive’s response was “no”.
She had reassured readers that she had not been raped and she must have felt obligated to play up the narrative that she was a lady. I felt this excerpt was interesting because of the emphasis they put on Olive’s appearance. I wonder what it would have read had she been unfortunate looking.
On April 19, 1856 the Star ran a two-column front-page story about Olive and in the story she’s got nothing but love for the Mohave and her family there, but the article eludes that she was not able to relay her story without help and implies she is telling her story while holding back. It appears that Olive may be realizing that there are some details of her Mohave upbringing that the Star readers just wouldn’t understand. After her story in the Star is picked up by a few other publications, a cousin of the Oatman’s comes forward as next of kin and travels to San Fran to retrieve them. After some hesitation they travel to the town of Gassburg, Oregon to live with their cousins, Henry and Harrison Oatman. By all accounts it would seem that Olive was assimilating back into white society. Here in Gassburg she makes friends, teaches swimming and sewing, two useful skills she learned from the Mohave. There are, however, some accounts that emotionally she was struggling. Crying and pacing around on some occasions. There were accounts of depression and anxiety and just overall sadness. While in Gassburg she meets a smooth talking young reverend named Royal Byron Stratton. Lorenzo approached Stratton about the possibility of him writing their story and with dollar signs in his eyes, Stratton agrees.
Now, Lorenzo and Olive had limited reading and writing skills so Lorenzo took liberties wherever he saw fit and their book titled Life Among the Indians: Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls was to be their first person testimony, but as it turns out Stratton’s desire to appeal to the populace notion that Indians were savages and terrorists added his one spin with an emphasis on white supremacy. There are many aspects of the book that completely contradict not only Olives earlier accounts published in the news papers, but other historical accounts given by those close to Olive and her story along with the knowledge of Indian practices especially the Mohave. But Stratton controlled the production of the book and was determined to add the inconsistencies as a way to boost sales I am sure and increase the drama, you know give the people what they want.
Lorenzo paid for the printing and in 1857, 5,000 copies where produced. Charles and Arthur Nahl were commissioned to illustrate the book and on it’s pages Olive and Mary Ann appear bare breasted on all accounts…even the moment of Mary Ann’s death. I don’t know, that seems a little gratuitous, but I guess boobs sell…even in the 1857…probably even more so. The book sold out within a week. It was republished with a new title Captivity of the Oatman Girls . During this time the literary genre “Captivity Literature” was all the rage. It of course sprung forth from the unrest between Native Indians and the pioneers and Stratton had this literary recipe down pat. The story was usually the same…family travels west…family is assaulted…girls kidnapped….yadda yadda. During this time middle class women were more educated and new technologies during the industrial revolution left them more time for reading. The timing of the book couldn’t have been better, but of course instead of painting Olive with a heroines brush the book focuses more on female frailty. Go figure.
The second edition is picking up steam and is now in large markets such as Chicago. They are making play type dramatizations in California…one such featuring Junius Brutus Booth Jr., the brother of infamous John Wilkes Booth. Apparently the play flopped, but I wanted to mention it anyway…it probably helped book sales I’d imagine. In 1857, the Oatman’s follow Stratton to California and attend the University of the Pacific, which was pretty progressive for letting in the ladies…teaching them such skills as embroidery, painting and “hair work” but it was short lived. Stratton, being the capitalist he was, takes the book to New York and gets a publisher to publish 26,000 more copies.
Lorenzo writes to family about the move to New York with hopes of visiting Illinois, the place where their journey had once begun. Probably with the influence of their brief schooling Lorenzo and Olive both include a poem. Lorenzo’s is one of hope for brighter days, but here is Olives:
I cannot! How can I
Express to you here;
Of the sorrow and grief
That still lingers near;
It seams to have molded
And fashioned my heart;
And casts a dark cloud
Ore my bright hopes of youth.
That says to me she is still dealing with a lot of emotional pain…probably from missing the only family she really knew or remembers, the Mohave. A whirlwind promotional tour brought them to Illinois and reunited them with their Mother’s family. Olive was, at last, reunited with her aunt Sarah who would take on a loving motherly roll in Olive’s life. Lorenzo, tiring of book sales starts to fancy a servant girl in the area and would eventually settle down in 1860. Meanwhile, Olive moves in with Stratton and his family. As part of their tour Stratton would put on lectures about the book and he quickly realized that his lectures do much better when they feature Olive, so he starts putting her on the posters and having her tell the story, duh. So she starts traveling around doing lectures and people were happy to pay money to see the “tattooed girl”. She was becoming somewhat of a spectacle, but at the same time she was really pushing the boundaries of what was expected of women. Here she was, one of very few women giving lectures, speaking in public forums and being paid for it and she was good at it. The reviews of her lectures were really positive.
In 1864, near the end of her profession as a lecturer she met a man named John Brant Fairchild. Fairchild had lost a brother in the Indian battle in Mexico in 1854 and was apparently intrigued and maybe even drive by empathy to meet Olive. Their courtship began soon after their meeting and they were engaged about a year or so later. Olive describes this as the happiest time of her life, but for me he has some dark tendencies. Before their wedding he bought and burned any copy of Olive’s book he could find. Whether he was attempting to protect her or save face, it’s unclear. Olive breaks off from Stratton and in 1870 the couple moves to Texas. They were well to do, Fairchild a wealthy businessman and Olive a reclusive woman often wearing a veil out in public, most likely to hide her tattoo and maybe gain a little anonymity. She did charity work and took care of local orphans and eventually the couple adopted a thee month old girl they named Mary-Elizabeth and nicknamed Mamie. In 1880 Olive’s health began failing, maybe it was her sedentary lifestyle plagued with depression that caused her all the pain, but after battling debilitating headaches and eye pain, spending time in hospitals and 19th century physical rehab centers with treatments based on relaxation, Olive passes away in 1903 of a heart attack. Five years later her husband would pass at 77. Their adoptive daughter moving away to Detroit where she marries and gives birth to a daughter who would live only a short while. Her name was Olive.
There is much more to Olive Oatmans story…so much more. My short synopsis was based upon the book The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Mifflin. She does an amazing job of researching and putting together all the historical pieces of the Olive’s puzzle through historical new papers, letters, pictures and other documents along with the opinions of historians to create a wonderful and interesting biography. If you like history and you liked the story of Olive Oatman, you’ll really enjoy this book.