Title: The Blue Tattoo
Author: Margot Mifflin
Publisher: Bison Books (non-fiction biography)
As Royce Oatman sat in his kitchen one sunny morning in the summer of 1850, he made the decision to give up farming in Illinois to join a wagon train of Brewsterites, a break-away sect of Mormons (Church of Latter Day Saints).
On August 9, 1850, Oatman and his family, with other settlers left Independence, Missouri to follow James C. Brewster, who was bound for California where he believed Mormons would find their true gathering place, rather than Utah.
Eventually disagreements caused the group to split, and Oatman took his family to forge on alone. Royce and his wife had seven children at the time, ranging in age from 17 to one year. On their fourth day out, they were approached by a group of Indians, asking for tobacco, food and rifles. At some point during the encounter, the Oatman family was attacked by the group, and all were killed except Lorenzo, age 15, Olive, age 14, and Mary Ann, age 7. Lorenzo had suffered a severe head wound, and eventually awakened to find his family massacred with no sign of his two sisters.
Western Yavapais had taken the Oatman girls to a village about a hundred miles away from the scene of the attack, where the girls were used as slaves, frequently beaten and mistreated. After a year, a group of Mohave Indians visited the village and traded two horses, vegetables and blankets for the captive girls. They walked for days to a Mohave village at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers (present-day Needles, California). The sisters were immediately adopted by the family of a tribal leader—Kohot. The Mohave tribe was more prosperous than the Yavapais, and both Kohot’s wife Aespaneo, and daughter Topeka, formed a bond with Oatman girls. Olive expressed her deep affection for these two women numerous times over the years well after her captivity had ended.
In keeping with the tribal custom, both Oatman girls were tattooed on their chins and arms, a sign for those who were tribal members. Mohave tradition held such marks were given only to their own people to ensure that they would have a good afterlife.
After her return to white society at the age of nineteen, Olive was encouraged to give lectures around the country displaying her tattoos and sharing her experiences as a white captive among the Mohaves. Author Margot Mifflin does a good job discussing the times Olive was torn between two cultures and hid from the public when she suffered severe bouts of depression over her internal struggles.
There are numerous other stories of white captives taken by Indians during the 18th and 19th centuries; most notably the story of Mary Jemison, the “White Woman of the Genesee”. If traded or sent back to live in white society, many of these captives had a difficult time re-adjusting, especially if they’d been assimilated into Indian culture as children or young teens.
In The Blue Tattoo, author Margot Mifflin has written a well-researched book, considering the many conflicting tales told about Oatman and the Mohave culture. Well-illustrated with photographs from the period, you can purchase it from several on-line book-sellers or found in your local libraries. My rating for this non-fiction biography: 4 ½ stars.