While brainstorming ideas for this week’s blog post, I started thumbing through my Twitter feeds to see if something would spark. One of my favorites Twitter feeds is called Classic Pics. There, in-between a classic picture of Audrey Hepburn and the Zeppelin over the Pyramids was an image of Olive Oatman. The caption read “While tattoos were hardly a thing back in the 1850, here are several rare photos of a traumatized woman named Olive who lived most of her young life in captivity.” The article goes on to say that Olive and her younger sister were captured then traded between different tribes. One of which tattooed their faces. Her sister died in captivity but she was eventually rescued. She would go on to live her life as a local celebrity for quite a few years.

Olive Oatman partial portrait
Olive Oatman partial portrait

The story was definitely interesting so I did some more reading. What I found was a little different story. Olive and her family were part of a Mormon splinter group called Brewsterites. The group was named for James C. Brewster, a Mormon leader who disagreed with the established Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Brewster organized and led a group of followers to California, which he insisted was the “intended place of gathering” for the Mormons. The group started their journey in Independence, Missouri in August of 1850.

Olive’s parents were Roys and Mary Ann. The Oatman’s had seven children. Olive was 14 at the time of the trip.

The Oatman’s joined 85 or so other Mormons on the wagon train west. By the time the group of settlers reached Santa Fe, New Mexico, there was a strong disagreement as to which way to travel. Brewster and most of the families took the northern route, while Roys Oatman and several other families headed south. When the Oatman group reached Maricopa Wells, Arizona, other travelers who had settled there warned the party that this route was too dangerous to travel and should abandon their plans to move west. While the other families decided to stay in Maricopa Wells, the Oatmans continued alone. This decision would seal their fate.

Olive Oatman full length portrait
Olive Oatman full length

On the fourth day out from Maricopa Wells, the Oatmans were met on the trail by a group of Native Americans. Olive would later describe the Indians as Apaches; based on the region they were probably Yavapai. The group of Yavapai demanded food and tobacco from the party. Eventually the Oatmans were attached. All were killed with the exception of 15 year old Lorenzo, 14 year old Olive, and 7 year old Mary Ann. While Lorenzo was beaten and left for dead, the Yavapai took much of the supplies from the wagon and the 2 sisters. Much later when Lorenzo woke, he found his family dead and his 2 sisters missing. It’s amazing that he would eventually make it to a nearby settlement where he was treated for his injuries.

During the next year the sisters would endure a life of slavery in the Yavapai village. They were used to gather food, carry water for their captors, and other menial tasks. Often the girls were beaten.

The Yavapai, as with many other Native American villages, would trade with other tribes as well as fur traders. One of these tribes was the Mohave. One day a group of Mohave came into camp and noticed the girls and asked to trade for them. The girls were traded for “two horses, vegetables, blankets, and other trinkets.”

So Olive and her sister would soon arrive at the Mohave village. While there they were treated much better than they were with the Yavapai. Almost immediately a family of a tribal leader took them in as their own.

Life would turn out to be much better for Olive and her sister during this time. They were treated as members of the tribe and Olive later claimed that they were welcomed to leave any time, but they would have to leave on their own. The Mohave refused to deliver the girls to the white men in fear of being accused of the murder of the Oatman family.

Mohave Indian with Facial Tattoo
Mohave Indian with Facial Tattoo

Sadly, sometime during 1855, the Mohave experienced a terrible drought. Many of the village died of starvation. Olive’s sister Mary Ann was one of them. She was 10 or 11.

When Olive was 19, a messenger approached the Mohave tribal leaders with a request to release the “white girl” that was living with them. Apparently stories of the Mohave’s white girl made its way to a local fort. At first the leaders refused. But after the messenger returned with a subtle threat that the white men would destroy the Mohave if they did not release the girl, they didn’t have much choice. Olive was released.

Olive was escorted to Fort Yuma and within a few days was reunited with Lorenzo. She would go on to live a productive life, often giving lectures of her ordeal.

The end.

But wait! What’s this have to do with tattoos? Well, many early accounts stated that the girls were marked to identify them as slaves but this is inconsistent with Mohave customs. Actually, once the Oatman girls arrived and settle in with the Mohave, they were treated as Mohave. The Mohave custom of tattooing was to ensure that when a Mohave would die and enter the “land of the dead”, their ancestors would recognize them as Mohave. So being thought of as Mohave, the girls were given the traditional chin and arm tattoos, which were similar to their Mohave family.

Thompson Indian Facial Tattoos
Facial Tattoos of the Thompson Indian

According to an article by Lars Krutak, “Tattooing performed at the time of puberty was perhaps the most important rite of passage for indigenous women among the tattooing tribes of California and the Native American Southwest.” He goes on to say “the practices surrounding the tattoo custom also enabled women to exercise control over their bodies during the course of their lifetimes and onwards into the afterlife. This was because the power of tattooing was derived from magical forces that transcended time, space, and human existence itself.”

Throughout the American West and Southwest, tattoos for both men and women usually were some form of chin markings, or “111”. But it wasn’t unusual to find groups with tattoos on their cheeks, breasts, abdomens, arms, and occasionally legs and thighs.

The American Southeast was home to the likes of the Seminoles, the Creek, and the Cherokee. All were know to decorate their bodies with tattoos and scrapings. When a young boy received his name, it was scraped into their skin to form a scar. Later when he was older and striving to become a warrior, he was given his warrior name. That too was scraped into his skin. Finally, when he had proven himself in battle, he was given his last name along with many new scars and tattoos.

For these Southern Indians, tattoos were more ornamental as opposed to the Southwestern Indians, which were more spiritual. Cherokee men slit their ears and stretched them by using copper wires. Creek men and women wore buffalo and deer hide moccasins in addition to their extensive tattoos. Social standing was reflected in their clothing and adornment.

Aleutian Women
Aleutian Women

In the American North, Eskimo women wore tattoos because it was believed to enhance their femininity and beauty. Certain tattoos identified women’s particular social status. They would be tattooed to announce their marriage or birth of a child. For the Eskimo, tattooing started at puberty. Children were tattooed on their wrists. Boys would be marked for their first animal kill while girls would be tattooed to commemorate their first menstruation.

So, initially I thought that Indians marked their young captives as a warning, but in actuality there was a lot more to it. Some Indians were very spiritual while others self-obsessed or conceited. Its interesting how thing cycle. Tattooing became popular throughout the early 1900’s, after World War II tattoos became less popular because of their association with delinquents, then tattooing took a nosedive in the 60’s with a major outbreak of hepatitis. Tattooing started a slow incline in the early 70’s to where it is today, very popular.

I think that it’s very much the same way in today’s society as it was with the American Indians. There are those who are very spiritual and choose their tattoos carefully, putting careful thought and meaning into every one. Then there are the narcissists. They just love the way they look!

Chris Potts

Chris is the “head honcho” and brains behind Inked2gether. This place is his brain-child. Drop him a line and let him know what you think!

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