The name Olive Oatman was foreign to me. As a lifetime student of history, I was surprised by this revelation. But, something about the dead look in her eyes drew my attention even more than the tattoos on her face. Olive was born in 1838 in Illinois to parents who would eventually follow the Mormon faith west, dragging their seven children along with them. Fate would intervene in Olive’s life in 1851 along the Gila River in Arizona and nothing would ever be the same again.
Traveling alone to Fort Yumas, fourteen year old Olive and her family were attacked by Yavapai Indians on the 18th of February. Before the day was done, she and her younger sister Mary Ann (7) would witness the horrible beating to death of their father Royce, eight months pregnant mother Mary Ann, 17 year old sister Lucy, younger siblings Royce Jr. (11), Charity Ann (5), and Roland (3). The reasons for the attack can be endlessly debated – ever encroaching white population on Indian lands, scare food supplies, a lone family traveling through Indian country, etc., but that wasn’t what interested me. It was the sadness and loss of Olive’s eyes staring from a photo taken a decade later that haunted me. It was like Olive died along with her family that day.
In total, Olive spent five years living first with the Yavapai as a slave and then later with the Mohave. During her captivity she would loose her last known family as her sister died of starvation during a particularly hard season. Most likely feeling as if the Mohave were all the family she had left, she adapted. The tattoos on her face show her acceptance into the Indian society. Fate would hand her another curve at the age of 19 when she returned to white society to discover that her older brother Lorenzo did not die on that brutal day in 1851. Although beaten, thrown from a cliff, and left for dead, fifteen year old Lorenzo would find his way back to the last stop on the trail – fighting off wolves and his injuries to get there.
After returning to white society, Olive’s story became a sensation and she spent the next decade or more of her life being exploited for her story. In later years she did marry and adopt a daughter, but she had no biological children. She often longed for the comfort of the mother she lost so young and became somewhat reclusive, never really talking about her family’s tragic past. She died in Texas in 1903.
When reading about Olive in Margot Mifflin’s book The Blue Tattoo, I was struck by the absolute loneliness Olive must have felt the majority of her life. To be violently taken from the security of her family and thrust into a completely different culture where she didn’t speak the language; to finally regain some sense of normalcy, only to be re-introduced to white society – a society that she no longer understood; to spend an entire lifetime constantly reliving the moment that everything in your life changed forever so that someone profited from your story.
The sadness and absolute blankness in Olive’s eyes speaks volumes about the effect of that day in 1851. No one really knows for sure how she felt, but it seems to me that she probably never felt at peace again.