History Features

10 Myths About Olive Oatman

The tattooed woman tells all in a new biography that debunks myths circulating since 1857.

aug09_olive_oatman

Olive Oatman was a 14 year old traveling west in 1851 when Southwest Indians attacked her family’s wagon train in Arizona (then Mexico), capturing Olive and her seven-year-old sister Mary Ann.

The girls lived with their captors for a year, then were traded to the Mohave, who raised them. Mary Ann died, and Olive was ransomed back to the whites in 1856, wearing a chin tattoo. She became a celebrity in her day, embarking on a lecture tour promoting a book that Rev. Royal B. Stratton wrote about her ordeal, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls. Newly published, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman is the first scholarly biography of Olive Oatman. It debunks a number of myths that have circulated about her over the past century and a half. Ten such myths follow.

1 - Her captors were Apaches.

Though Olive later identified them as Apaches—commonly assumed, in her era, to encompass a variety of dangerous Southwest tribes—her captors were probably much less notorious. Their proximity to the murder site, regular contact with the Mohave Indians, hunter-gatherer lifestyle and small scale farming practices suggest they were one of four fluid groups of Yavapais. Most likely they were Tolkepayas, a name that distinguishes them more geographically than culturally from other free-ranging yet interconnected Yavapais.

2 - The rest of the Oatman family was killed in the massacre.

Not everyone. Olive’s brother Lorenzo, nearly 15, was left for dead near Gila Bend. He managed to return to the remainder of the party the Oatmans had left behind at Maricopa Wells. He and Olive reconnected at Fort Yuma soon after her ransom.

3 - She was a slave to the Mohave.

Though she and her younger sister Mary Ann did serve as slaves to the Yavapais during the year they spent with them, they were not slaves to the Mohave. They were adopted into the family that had arranged for their retrieval from the Yavapais, given their clan name Oach and treated as family. The term the Mohave used to describe them, “ahwe,” meant “stranger” or...

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