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The Blue Tattoo

The Life of Olive Oatman

Margot Mifflin

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Women in the West


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pp. vii


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pp. viii

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pp. ix-xi

I would like to thank the many people who helped me with this book: Oatman scholars Jennifer Putzi, who first told me about Olive; Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, who consistently advised and encouraged me; and Brian McGinty, who was generous enough to share his knowledge and resources with a friendly competitor. ...

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Prologue: Emigrant Song

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pp. 1-8

In the early 1850s, Olive Oatman was a typical pioneer girl heading west on a wagon train full of Mormons in search of gold and God. By the end of the decade she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, torn between two cultures. Orphaned at fourteen after her family was massacred by Yavapai Indians in northern Mexico...

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1. Quicksand

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pp. 9-16

The Oatman family spent their last night together marooned on a tiny island surrounded by quicksand in the Gila River in Mexico. California bound, they had left their farm in Illinois in May of 1850, joined twenty other families in Missouri in July, and by February of 1851, they were alone...

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2. Indian Country

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pp. 17-21

Forced to discard their shoes to avoid leaving a recognizable trail, the Oatman girls found themselves being marched barefoot at warrior speed back across the river and through a dark ravine to an Indian camp in the hills. They traveled in two groups: one leading the captives, the other the animals. ...

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3. "How Little We Thought What Was Before Us"

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pp. 22-43

If a belief in Providence sustained Olive and Mary Ann in captivity, it was also what had propelled them into the hands of Yavapais in the first place. The Oatmans were Mormons who had joined a wagon train headed to the mouth of the Colorado River to settle in the "land of Bashan," which they believed would be a Mormon paradise. ...

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4. A Year with the Yavapais

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pp. 44-52

The Oatmans' darkest fantasy, lovingly cultivated if averted along the way west, featured an attack by brutal Apaches. Now, Olive and Mary Ann were in the hands of a tribe with no significant reputation for raiding -- for that matter, with no reputation among Anglos at all, because until the late 1840s they'd rarely if ever seen...

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5. Lorenzo's Tale

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pp. 53-63

With their immediate family slaughtered and their relatives in Illinois too far away to help them, Olive and Mary Ann had every reason to believe they were alone in the world, buried in the mountains beyond the reach of white culture. But they weren't alone. ...

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6. Becoming Mohave

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pp. 64-81

As terrific runners whose barefoot marathons took them over rock, sand, and gravel, sometimes as far as the Pacific coast, the Mohaves drove Olive and Mary Ann too fast, until their feet were nicked and raw. On the second day after leaving the Yavapais, their guides made them makeshift shoes from skins and agreed to travel shorter distances each day on the journey home. ...

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7. Deeper

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pp. 82-91

Mary Ann had always been a frail child. During the summer of 1853, the girls' second with the Mohaves, she was chronically sick, sometimes too weak to wander the desert plucking the seed buds off the mesquite tree and hang them to dry for the winter. A basket a day was all the girls needed to fill, and even that much was hard to find. ...

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8. "There Is a Happy Land, Far, Far Away"

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pp. 92-99

The Mohaves were famously ferocious warriors, but their conflicts were often instigated by war leaders who steamrolled the pacifist majority of the tribe in their push to battle. They went to war for a variety of reasons: to exact revenge, to take prisoners, to protect their territory, but most often to enhance their nationalistic and spiritual identities, which were intertwined. ...

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9. Journey to Yuma

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pp. 100-108

When Lorenzo left Fort Yuma in June of 1851, none of his extended family in New York or Illinois had come forward to claim him. That September his uncle, Asa Abbott, wrote to entomologist John Le-Conte in New York, asking about the incident. ...

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10. Hell's Outpost

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pp. 109-125

Mark Twain called it "the hottest place on earth."1 A resident lieutenant considered it cool there if the temperature held at one hundred degrees. And legend had it that a soldier who died there had gone to hell and found it so cold by comparison that he returned for blankets. ...

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11. Rewriting History in Gassburg, Oregon

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pp. 126-145

There would be no anonymity for Olive Oatman, "the heroine," as a fellow churchgoer called her, in the fledgling town of Gassburg.1 Founded in 1851, Gassburg (now Phoenix) was a mining village on the trail that connected the fertile Willamette Valley with the California gold fields. ...

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12. Captive Audiences

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pp. 146-172

Life Among the Indians sold out within three weeks of its publication in April of 1857. A second printing of six thousand followed, with changes and additions: a new title, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, shifted the focus from culture-crossing to white victimization, dramatized most vividly by a new engraving of Olive arriving at Fort Yuma, this time in a dress instead of her bark skirt1 ...

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13. "We Met as Friends, Giving the Left Hand in Friendship"

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pp. 173-181

During the years Olive traveled the lecture circuit describing her life among the Mohave, the very foundations of the Mohave life she had known were crumbling. In 1857, just a year after she had left, the tribe had joined the Quechans in a disastrous attack on the Pimas and the Maricopas. ...

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14. Olive Fairchild, Texan

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pp. 182-197

Like most nineteenth-century women, Olive's movements were determined by the men in her life, and the women she befriended tended to fall away from her with each relocation. Her father took her west, Stratton took her east, and when she married John Brant Fairchild, a farmer and rancher from Michigan, she made her home in Texas. ...

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Epilogue: Oatman's Literary Half-Life

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pp. 198-209

Olive's legacy, like her Mohave ethnicity, would be more notional than genealogical. She had slipped into another skin and passed as a Mohave, then she peeled away her Indian self and resumed her whiteness, leaving no genetic trace in either realm.1...


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pp. 211-230


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pp. 231-245


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pp. 247-261

E-ISBN-13: 9780803224483
E-ISBN-10: 0803224486

Illustrations: 31 b/w images, 1 map
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Women in the West