Marked For Life
Girls with tattoos don’t rate a raised eyebrow in our society. The current generation uses their bodies as a living canvas for their personal art. Eyebrow, nose and bellybutton piercings, studded tongues, and other body décor that I don’t wish to know, is no big deal today. Historically this was true for indigenous people also, but would have been scandalous a few generations back in American society. It was no surprise that in 1856, Olive Oatman drew gasps everywhere she went.
Let me tell you about Olive. Part of her story takes place near the town where I was born, so I have always had a special interest in her.
First the cultural climate of the 1850’s: The people headed West in their wagon trains gave no thought to the fact that they were invading someone else’s space and claiming ownership. The Indians reacted at times with unnecessary violence. Too many times this story has been told heavily weighted on one side. But like a pancake every story has two sides.
It was the time of the Mormon emigration to Utah. The Oatman family belonged to a splinter group of Mormons called “Brewsterites”. James Colin Brewster claimed to have had a vision of a promised land at the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, now in Arizona, but then part of Mexico.
About 100 families left Independence, Missouri, to find this land of “Bashan”. Just miles out the group began bickering and wagoneers split from the group, then split again. Among g these bickering adventurers was the Oatman family, headed by the fiery tempered Royce Oatman, father of a large family. Some accounts say there were 9 children, others say as few as five. Mrs. Oatman was pregnant when they began this journey that was to become a tale of horror.
After taking off on their own, they ran out of provisions. They had meager rations and nothing for the livestock. The horses pulling the wagon starved to death. The cows that were to be the start of their new herd lay down and refused to go any farther when they were out in a desert wilderness. The whole family had to push the wagon to a flat protected spot then collapsed on the ground from hunger.
It was to get much worse that evening. A small group of Yavapai Indians rode up and asked for food. Mr. Oatman could converse with them in Spanish. He could only offer them morsels of bread; they demanded more which he could not provide. They then started clubbing poor, pregnant Mrs. Oatman to death. Mr. Oatman could not defend his family, it was a bloody scene. Two girls, seven year-old -Mary and fourteen-year-old-Olive, hid in the sage and saw all their family clubbed. (Lorenzo, their 17- year-old brother was bloodied and unconscious, but not dead. He managed to walk miles to find other wagoneers.)
When the Indian group saw Mary and Olive they captured them and took them with them.
I will not try to relate the story of their next five years as captives. Two books have been written that you may wish to read if you are interested in this story. Well, only one is really worth your time, the first written the year Olive was escorted to Fort Yuma by a Mojave Indian. It was an exploitation of Olive and Mary’s experience, calculated to attract a curious public to a lecture tour that drew crowds for ten years and made the author a rich man.
The second is a well written and factual account. THE BLUE TATTOO: THE LIFE OF OLIVE OATMAN, by Margot Miflin. Worth your time.
Fragile little Mary did not survive the harsh life that was her fate, but Olive lived to tell the tale. She was marked forever with the ugly blue tattoos of her tribe, but even more indelible, the emotional scars of her “Indian Years”, that caused people to talk behind their hands when they would see her.