She was 14 years old when her family was massacred by Indians. She was enslaved by the killers for a year, then traded to a neighbouring tribe, the Mohaves, with whom she remained for another four years. When she returned to white society she wore a Mohave tattoo on her chin.
She became the subject of a best-selling book, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls, and gave lectures about her experience to packed houses, yet for the rest of her life remained a somewhat shadowy and retiring figure, in part because of her freakish appearance.
So powerful was her story that it took on a life of its own. It was frequently repeated in newspapers -- usually incorrectly -- and attracted the attention of people who fabricated a connection with her.
"For all its recycling," writes Margo Mifflin, author of The Blue Tattoo, "the only constant about the Oatman story is that no two authors agree on what happened."
Olive Oatman has morphed into a sort of mythological figure, her most recent incarnation appearing in the TV series, Hell on Wheels.
Up to the time of her capture, the Mohaves had had little contact with white culture. They occupied a green valley along the Colorado River "for at least a thousand years." Their society was marked by affection, generosity, and laughter. The men were universally described as tall and strikingly handsome. They were excellent swimmers and "said to routinely run 100 miles at a stretch."
The Mohaves, then, were close to an early "state of nature" as idyllic as Rousseau might have described, and explains why Olive may not have wanted to leave. Although she gave contradictory statements about her time with them, it seems likely she was well-treated. Whether or not she ever felt completely at ease in white society is unclear.
In less than 10 years after she was repatriated, the Mohaves were shuffled off into reservations.
Amazingly -- 150 years later and despite its many errors and distortions -- Captivity of the Oatman Girls is still in print. It belongs to a genre I'd never heard of before, stories about women captured by Native Americans, and of which "nearly two thousand were published by 1880."
Blue Tattoo mentions a few such women: Mary Rowlandson, Mary Jemison, Hannah Dustan, and Cynthia Ann Parker -- whose son became a Commanche chief, Quanah Parker -- and Eunice Williams, captured at age 7 in Massachusetts and taken to Canada where she was adopted by a Mohawk family at Kahnawake.
The context of captivity literature in the 19th century is discussed, particularly among women for whom it "presented a tantalizing alternative to enforced domesticity."
Olive was raised by Mormons, her father a reckless fellow who styled himself a preacher and a healer. In their trek west, he aligned himself with a splinter group led by a deluded prophet named Brewster. Squabbling among themselves further divided the group until the Oatman family ended up alone in a single wagon, continuing on despite the warnings of others. Their food was nearly gone when they were attacked.
After being rescued, Olive fell under the influence of a Methodist preacher named Royal Stratton, who ghost-wrote Captivity, described by Margo Mifflin as a "racist, religion-soaked tract." He "omitted, exaggerated, and fabricated information in order to deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating."
He died in an insane asylum.
Standing now astride two cultures, Olive unwittingly made history: she was the first known tattooed white female in the United States.
The year Olive was captured, 1851, saw the publication of Moby-Dick, the first American novel in which tattoos defined an important character, Queeqeg.
The tattooed captive became a common circus theme throughout the 1880s and '90s.
Fascinating and well-researched, Blue Tattoo includes an index, bibliography, footnotes, and numerous B&W illustrations. The 2011 paperback edition contains a new postscript in which a recently discovered letter by Olive is reproduced.