Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Reprise: The Woman with the Blue Tattoo

on November 26, 2021
Olive Oatman, Library of Congress

Olive Oatman became famous in the 1850s for the blue perpendicular lines tattooed onto her chin. She called them “slave marks,” and people all across America wanted to know how and why she had acquired them.

On the afternoon of February 18, 1851, while camped along the Gila River in Arizona, Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, watched in horror as a band of Western Yavapai Indians massacred their mother, father, two sisters, and three brothers. Held back as captives, the two girls, fourteen and seven, were forced to walk barefoot through the rugged desert to the isolated Yavapai camp. For a year they lived there as slaves, fetching wood, hauling water, and gathering food, until traded to the Mohave tribe for two horses, three blankets, vegetables, and beads.

The Mohaves (Aha Macav, “along the river,”) inhabited a lush, fertile valley along the banks of the Colorado River, the traditional boundary between Arizona and California.

Chief Espaniole and his wife, Aespaneo, welcomed the girls into the tribe and adopted them into their own family. They were proud to have rescued the girls from the cruel Yavapai and vowed to treat them well.

The girls worked alongside the other women of the tribe, gathering wood, fetching water, and planting seeds. They soon learned the Mohave language and developed close friendships with other members of the tribe.

Olive was variously called “Ali,” “Aliutman,” “Olivino,” and “Owich (cloud),” the clan name of Chief Espaniole’s family. Mohave women inherited clan names passed down from their fathers, and bearing a clan name meant Olive was considered a full member of the tribe.

Facial tattoos were common among the Mohave Indians because they believed the permanent marks guaranteed a place in “Sil’aid,” the land of the dead. Tribal members who died without tattoos would spend eternity in a desert rat hole. Since Olive and Mary Ann belonged to the tribe, they were expected to undergo the tattooing process.

The girls lay quietly on the ground while experienced tattooers drew designs on their chins. Since the tattoos were meant to be decorative, they chose designs that would enhance the girls’ faces. Using cactus needles or sharp sticks, the designs were pricked into the skin until the wounds freely bled. The sticks were dipped in the juice of a special river weed, then into a powder made from a blue river stone, and applied to the pinpricks on the girls’ chins. The process took several hours to complete and several days to heal.

With this rite of passage, Olive and Mary Ann became permanent members of the Mohave tribe and the first white females in the United States to wear tattoos.

A terrible drought in 1855 brought famine to the tribe. Many people died, including Mary Ann. Olive soon fell ill herself. Aespaneo saved her life by feeding her gruel made from cornmeal.

In January 1856, a Yuma Indian named Francisco arrived at the Mohave camp with papers from Fort Yuma ordering the release of Olive Oatman. Chief Espaniole refused to release her. But Francisco persisted, claiming that five million white soldiers were hiding in the hills, ready to attack and destroy the Mohave village. The Mohaves reluctantly gave in.

Once again, Olive was traded for two horses, blankets, and beads. She arrived at Fort Yuma ten days later, tanned, tattooed, painted, her hair dyed black, and wearing only a bark skirt. She was nineteen years old. Her brother Lorenzo, who had survived the massacre, traveled from California for a tender reunion with his long-lost sister.

Olive became an overnight sensation. Newspapers all across America printed stories about “the white Indian” and her blue tattoo. The Evansville Enquirer reported on November 9, 1859: “She will bear the marks of her captivity to her grave. Her savage masters having tattooed her after the customs of their tribes.”

In 1857 Royal B. Stratton published the first book detailing the Oatman ordeal, Life Among the Indians, which became an immediate best-seller. Olive and Lorenzo traveled to New York, where Olive promoted the book with autographed photographs and lectures. She openly displayed her tattoo while relaying the tragic story of the Oatman massacre and her life as a “slave” among the Mohave Indians.

When not delivering lectures, Olive self-consciously covered her chin with her hands to avoid the staring eyes of curious people.

Olive married wealthy cattleman John Brant Fairchild in 1865, left the lecture circuit, and eventually settled down in Sherman, Texas. She became reclusive, hid her face behind a black veil, experimented with make-up to hide her blue tattoo, and refused to discuss her life among the Indians. She died of heart failure in 1903. Afraid the Mohaves would claim her body, John Fairchild had her coffin sealed in iron and covered her grave with a thick granite tombstone.

(Mohave Indian woman with body paint and tattoos.)

Dawn Pisturino

October 17, 2012; November 25, 2021

Copyright 2012-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.


19 responses to “Reprise: The Woman with the Blue Tattoo

  1. Timothy Price says:

    Excellent write up of a fascinating history. There were a couple of children on my dad’s side of the family who where captured by a tribe in Kansas. They were said to be incorporated into the tribe, and my dad said they refused to leave the tribe when they were discovered, because that was they only life they knew.

    My mom told us when we we kids that we had Pottawatomie in us. My brother had a DNA test done on my mom several years ago, and no Pottawatomie or other indigenous genes showed up. All her ancestors were English and northern European. My mom’s sister refused to believe there were no Pottawatomie ancestors in their bloodline, and it caused quite a row between them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read several books about Indian captives, and many of them decided to stay with their tribes, for whatever reason. That is so interesting that this happened in your own family! Supposedly, my 12th grandmother was a Montauk Indian (Southampton, New York), but it did not show up on my ancestry.com DNA. However, according to the Human Genome Project, you have to have specialized DNA tests done to detect it. If you recall, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had specialized tests done to determine her miniscule amount of Native American blood. Thank you, Timothy!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Timothy Price says:

        I’ll have to tell my aunt. My mom died in August. It’s amazing what people are finding with the DNA testing. One of our friends really got into it and discovered all kinds of interesting things about her family and even tracked down some previously unknown cousins. Her mom kept a lot of things secret, and she and her son have had to be secretive about all the shady secrets they’ve discovered so her mom doesn’t find out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, my family was also keeping a lot of secrets, and also had a lot of false information. Working on the family tree with ancestry.com really helped me to sort some things out. Of course, on the flip side, I also uncovered things that I didn’t really want to know! I have no idea how and where you get the tests done to test for Native American DNA. I’ll have to look that up. Thanks!


  2. Michele Lee says:

    Fascinating history and woman. I had not learned of her until a few years into my teaching career. Of course, I included her story in my American Literature courses. So much history not taught! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! If you have ever watched the TV show “Hell on Wheels,” the female character with the chin tattoo is based on Olive Oatman. There is also a rumor that she married and had at least one son while living with the tribe, but that has never been proven. I can’t even imagine living through that! Just being forced to walk through the desert would have killed most people. Thanks, Michele!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michele Lee says:

        I did see that show a few times after I learned of her. I did not know about that speculation. Thank you for sharing. So true! Traumatic experience. I am a native of the SW and I doubt I would survive a journey through the desert. You are welcome. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fascinating history!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A very interesting read and a story that Ii had not heard before! Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That was a very interesting post! I really learned something here! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A fascinating account, I assume she was not the only woman who grew up among the red Indians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not at all. When the Indians attacked settlements, they sometimes took women and children and used them as slaves or incorporated them into their tribes. I’ve read accounts about men being taken captive, also, especially in the earlier days, when this was a British colony. They, too, were used as slaves or became part of the tribe and learned the same survival skills. Sometimes, people married into the tribe and then didn’t want to leave. Or, children grew up in the tribe and didn’t want to leave. Women who were rescued were generally thought to be “ruined,” even in the case of Olive Oatman. It was assumed that she had been ravaged, and there were rumors that she had married and had at least one son. That has never been proven. However, I have no doubt that she had a lot of psychological and emotional baggage from her experience. I’m glad for her that she had a loving brother and husband. Her story is well-known in Northern Arizona because the living ghost town of Oatman (and old gold mining town) is named after her family.


  7. utahan15 says:

    marks of cain yet again and again!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember seeing the show “Hell on Wheels” where the character Eva had the markings of a slave. Sadly, many people don’t know, or won’t acknowledged what occurred to many Native Americans and other ethnic cultures already inhabiting this land, before the embarkment of settlers.

    It is understandable “why” retaliation occurred, due to the brutality by some new settlers on the “savages” which is sadly how the Natives of this land were referred to, and in light of such prejudices still continue to exist and increase to this day. Many innocent people, especially women and girls, suffered at the expense caused by the hands of what others did. There’s so much history that has buried for centuries that is critical to our understanding, compassion, and empathy for our fellow human beings. If people would listen and delve into histories outside their comfort zones, especially nowadays when hate has flared up so horrifically, and sadly embraced by too many, we would be able to get a better understanding of the “why” and decide how to come together on a more united front.

    Sadly, the gap in our divisions seem to be getting wider, and there’s too much psychoanalyzing and finger pointing, instead of having a healthy dialogue, more compromising (in a good and positive way of course), and greater respect for the humans and stewards God created us to be. Thanks for sharing this story Dawn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kym, America has a rich and complex history which is regional as well as national. So many cultures have influenced our nation, and each region has its own history and cultural background. Unless you read books or watch documentaries, you miss out on a lot of really interesting history. We also need to learn to look at history through the context of the times in which it occurred and not attach modern day hysterics, political agendas, and values to it. It was what it was, and no amount of fighting over it is going to change it. Even among American Native Americans, there is a realization that you have to move forward and let go of past hostilities if you want to survive and succeed in this world. Other groups need to let go of the past and do the same thing. None of us will survive otherwise. Thanks for your insightful comments!~

      Liked by 1 person

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