The Story of Olive Oatman and her blue tattoo after the kidnapping by the Mohave.

The exploration of the North American territories begins immediately after the conquest of the new continent. Many came from Europe in search of a new life and opportunities. The discovery of strands of gold, the presence of a rich fauna source of fur and a very fertile land attracted numerous pioneers who for decades crossed the impervious regions of the interior up to the Pacific coasts of Oregon and California.

But not everyone was guided by the myth of wealth. Many travelled to the New World to freely exercise their religion.
In the history of the conquest of the West, there are little-known episodes such as, for example, the story of Olive Oatman.

Blue Tattoo – The Story of Olive Oatman
Blue Tattoo - The Story of Olive Oatman - Mohave

The kidnapping by the Mohave

Blue Tattoo – The Story of Olive Oatman

The Story of a Kidnapping

In 1823 Joseph Smith, he said, had received a sacred book and an assignment to found a new religion from an angel named Moroni. It is the dawn of Mormonism, a religion according to which one must seek a promised land, a place to live in harmony. The Mormons then looked west to Utah as their probable promised land.

The Otman family, of Mormon faith, consisted of nine people. In 1850 they decided to join the caravan led by J.C. Brewster, headed for California. Once in today’s New Mexico, there was a split. Brewster doubted that Utah could be the “promised land indicated in the books”, considering California the destination indicated by the Angel and the scriptures.

The caravan split and the Oatman family, driven by a strong religious fervor, chose to go even further south, towards the Sonora desert. A path already known to be very arid and dangerous, also due to the presence of hostile natives.

On the banks of the Gila River, they were approached by a group of natives. What happened is not clear, but the family was wiped out, except for the 15-year-old son Lorenzo, who survived, Olive, 14 years old and Mary Ann, 7 years old.

The natives, probably Yavapais, took the two girls to the village, about 70/80 miles from the site of the attack. After about a year of staying with the Yavapais, they were sold to a group of Mohave Indians, who took them to their village, in a location now called Needles (California).
Here they were “adopted” by the family of the chieftain Espanesay and grew up protected by the attentions of his wife Aespaneo and his daughter Topeka. In 1855, during a long period of drought, Mary Ann starved to death.

Symbolic Tattoos

Like most North American tribes, the Mohaves, both men and women, used to get tattooed on various parts of the body, especially on the chin, forehead and hands.

Native tribes used tattoos during rites of passage and their purpose was to establish or strengthen a bond with ancestors. But they were also a sign of belonging to a particular tribe on the day of entry to Sil’aid, in the land of the dead, in the green grasslands of Manitou.

For this reason, what Olive declared after his release, namely that the tattoo was a symbol of slavery, is not credible. The Mohave did not tattoo the girls to mark them, but rather to include them even more in the life, earthly and non-earthly, of the Mohave, to the point that to the Oatman was also assigned land and a clan name: the Oatman became the Oach clan.

Tattoos were done using a blue stone powder even if black and white photos it’s not possible to distinguish the colour.

Olive’s Second Life

United States Federal Government authorities had heard rumours about a young white woman among the Mohaves. At first the Mohave denied it, then gave it up in exchange for a horse and some blankets but also because they were pressured by the threat of seeing their village destroyed.

When she arrived at Yuma fort, Olive was not allowed to enter until she was dressed in more “appropriate” clothes (her Mohave dress was just a skirt), washed her painted face and dyed her hair. But the tattoo remained on his face, the indelible memory of five years spent as part of the tribe.

Religion in this Story comes into play again

In 1857, a Methodist pastor named Royal B. Stratton interviewed the girl for a long time and wrote a highly fictional book that sold 30,000 copies, an enormity at the time. The book had a strong anti-natives charge, described as fierce, savage, bestial, lacking in morale.

It must be said that Olive always denied having suffered sexual violence or coercion from both the Yavapais and the Mohave.
Olive explained to her audience that the tattoo was inked on her face so she could be easily identified if she had fled. It implied that she had been detained in the village against her will, but it was proved that despite having had several occasions, she never left the tribe.

Blue Tattoo - The Story of Olive Oatman

A photo of Olive Oatman and her tattoo.

Blue Tattoo – The Story of Olive Oatman

Numerous newspapers of the time spoke of Olive’s experience among the natives and her tattoo marked her as extraneous to the so-called civil society.
The tattoos and a possible promiscuity with the native savages, were considered improper and Olives were the object of looks, like a circus’ freak and on every public occasion she tried to cover his tribal tattoo with creams and veils.

In 1865, Olive married John B. Fairchild, a wealthy Rochester farmer and banker. Olive always carried a jar of hazelnuts, a staple food for the Mohave, as a reminder of her experience. She died in 1903, aged 65.

Blue Tattoo - The Story of Olive Oatman

Mohave Woman.

Blue Tattoo – The Story of Olive Oatman

Tattoos and Women

The Europeans had learned of tattoos through the travels of James Cook, who saw the first one in the Pacific.

Tattooing between North American tribes was performed at the time of puberty, perhaps the most important rite of passage for women native to California and the southwest.
The tattooed men shared the transformation, pain and healing of the skin; it was the moment when identity, personal experience and historical memory met.
The tattoo and its associated ceremonies saw the intervention of supernatural (spirits) and environmental (pigments) agents, but also the creation of a “skin ego” that derives from the bodily sensations experienced before and during the moment of tattoo application.
In some areas of North America, tattoo rites have helped transform female initiates into women through a symbolic process of body transformation.

In particular, tattooing practices allow women to exercise control over their bodies throughout their lives and later in the afterlife. This is because the power of the tattoo stemmed from magical forces that transcend time, space and human existence itself.

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