r By Debbie Balzotti
Sometimes I judge a book by its cover. The haunting portrait photo of Olive Oatman from 1848 shows a dark-haired beauty with a tattooed face gazing out from the cover. “The Blue Tattoo” tells her story from an Illinois childhood through her later years as a wealthy banker’s wife in Texas. Based on historical records, the author Margot Mifflin gives readers a well-researched glimpse into the life of this forgotten 19th century woman.
The Oatman family, who were not Mormons as described on the book cover, joined a group calling themselves the Brewsterites named after their 11-year-old founder James Brewster. Although Brewster’s claims to divine revelation were called phony by the neighboring Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, his followers believed Brewster had translated a lost book by an ancient prophet Esdras. When Brewster promised his “saints” an inheritance in the valleys of the Gila and Colorado rivers, the Oatman family packed up their wagon.
Separating from the company as they reached the Southwest, the Oatmans were attacked by the Yavapais who killed most of the family and took 14-year-old Olive and her younger sister Mary Ann captive. The girls were used as slaves by their captors and later traded to the Mohaves, who tattooed Olive’s face and accepted her into their tribe.
After five years, Olive was ransomed back and returned to white society wearing only a bark skirt. As news of her abduction and rescue spread, she became a national celebrity. The author sympathetically describes how terrible it was to be put on display. One Star news article described people who would “rush to see her and stare at her, with about as much sense of feeling as they would to a show of wild animals.”
In addition to newspaper articles, Mifflin references diaries and letters from Olive’s family and friends as well as Olive’s own writings. An interesting postscript was added after the 2009 edition. A librarian at the LDS Church History Library and Archives in Salt Lake City sent her a transcription of a letter in their collection which provides a happy ending to Olive’s story. She refers to her marriage to “my dear husband” Mr. John B. Fairchild and her busy life as a lecturer. Her letter says her wedding began the “happiest period of my life.”
“The Blue Tattoo” is an interesting book about Olive Oatman and the struggles of the southwest in the 19th century. It’s not “light” reading but time well spent. It is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.