Olive Oatman: First Tattooed Woman in North America?

Reblogged from: www.swallowsndaggers.net

Anybody who reads this blog knows a thing or two about tattoos (or so I assume). Here’s a question for everybody: do you know who the first Caucasian tattooed woman in North America was? Well, there’s no way to be sure, but there are many people who say it was Olive Oatman.

olive oatman

I first heard about her on tattooblog.com, and let me tell you guys, her story is fascinating. Too lazy to click the link? Well then, let me tell you the story of Olive Oatman myself!


OLIVE WHO? Olive Oatman was one of eleven siblings. The family lived in Chicago, Illinois, where her father was a farmer. After injuring himself while helping a neighbor dig a well, Olive’s father decided to move the family to New Mexico, where the climate was more temperate. In 1850 or 1851, the Oatman family joined a wagon train, and Just like that they were on their way. At this time, Olive’s parents had seven children ranging in age from one year to 16. SO…WHAT HAPPENED? Mister Oatman was apparently a bit foolhardy, and decided to ignore some good advice from other members of his wagon train after a disagreement. The Oatmans, along with two other families, decided to take a more southern route than anybody else to avoid travelling in the snow. The route was tougher than they had anticipated, and there had been sightings of Indians along the way, much to their chagrin. On February 16, 1851, the three wagons came to a Pima Indian village. The other two families had the good sense to remain there and await assistance, but the Oatmans had something to prove, and wanted to keep going to Fort Yuma, which was still another 190 miles away. Four days into the last leg of their trek, they were approached by a group of Indians(of which tribe has been highly debated) and the majority of the Oatman family was clubbed to death. Olive’s 4 siblings and both of their parents were killed. The only survivors were Olive, age 13; her sister Mary Ann, age 7; and her brother Lorenzo, aged 16, who was clubbed in the head and left for dead WHY? Sources differ as to the reason for the attack. Some say the Indians were “asking for tobacco, food and trifles” in a tense transaction of goods, while others say the attack was a recompense for trespassing and hunting on their land. THEN WHAT HAPPENED? When Lorenzo awoke after being clubbed on the head and passing out, he found everybody else dead, but there was no sign of Mary Ann and Olive. He walked until he reached a settlement and was treated for his injuries, and three days later Lorenzo sadly buried the bodies of his family in a mass grave. BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GIRLS? The girls were taken to a village approximately 100 miles from the site of the attack, on foot. They were weak and most of their clothing was torn. They were barefoot. There were no rest stops and they were given no mercy. Every time they slowed their pace they were beaten. Mary Ann fainted, and was promptly hoisted up by one of the Indian men and carried over his shoulder for the remainder of the journey. When they finally arrived at the village, the girls were thrown onto some sticks and were tormented by the Indians, who were standing around them in a circle, laughing. Both of the girls were certain they had been brought back to the village to be tortured and killed in some kind of ritual. They were not killed. Instead, they became slaves, and if they didn’t do as they were told, or if there was any miscommunication, the parents would beat them The girls’ clothing wore out in two weeks, and Olive had to make makeshift clothing out of matted tree bark tied around their bodies. It offered no warmth, and the first winter the girls almost died from the cold. BUT HOW DID THEY END UP WITH TATTOOS? The following summer, the Mohave tribe came along and bartered for the rights to the two sisters. They were traded for two horses, and some vegetables and blankets. The girls had to travel for ten days, barefoot, with literally almost nothing to eat over rough mountainous country to the Mohave village in western Arizona. When the girls arrived after ten days’ travel, barefoot,starving and weak, the Mohave chief (Chief Espanesay) decided immediately to adopt them into his family as though they were his own children. The tribe gave the girls blankets and food, and they did not have to do any physical labor. They were given small parcels of land and seeds to grow corn, melons and beans. This was when the sisters were given tattoos on their chins and arms. Cactus thorns acted as needles, and dye or charcoal was rubbed into the wounds. Tattoos were an extremely important part of the Mohave culture, and giving the girls tattoos was an important gesture on the part of the Mohave peoples. According to tattooarchive.com: “[the Mohave] would tattoo their chins and sometimes their foreheads…there was no special guild of tattooists and most tattooing was done on people between the ages of 20 and 30. Part of the Mohave belief is that any man or woman without a tattoo on the face would be refused entrance to Sil’aid, the land of the dead. .. many old folks who had not been tattooed in their youth were tattooed on their deathbeds.” Oatman was told she could leave the tribe whenever she wanted to, but nobody would show her how to get back to her people because they were afraid of repercussions from her family. After living with the tribe for about a year, a famine struck and several children died, including Mary Ann, who was mourned by the Chief and his wife as though she had been one of their own children. It was reported that Olive was allowed to bury Mary Ann, rather than the tradition of cremating her body, because the Mohaves wanted to respect Olive’s customs. WHAT ABOUT OLIVE’S BROTHER? Lorenzo never forgot about his sisters, and continued searching unabashedly for years, until finally, a Yuma Indian named Francisco told Lorenzo he would search the Mohave Nation for Olive. DID HE FIND HER? yes! Oatman was 16 years old when Francisco arrived with the message from the Fort Yuma authorities. It stated that there had been a rumor floating around that the Mohaves were holding a white girl captive, and the post commander demanded her return at once. Blankets and horses were sent along to trade for the girl, and even though initially the Mohaves resisted the trade, eventually they decided it would be better to accept than to go to war, and tearfully, Olive was escorted to Fort Yuma. When she arrived at the Fort, Olive had been dressed in traditional Mohave women’s clothing; a short skirt and nothing else, and she insisted on being given “proper clothing”, while allegedly covering her face with her hands and hiding her body until an officer’s wife sent a dress out for her to wear. She was greeted inside the Fort by a cheering crowd and, to her amazement, her brother Lorenzo. Their meeting made headline news across the West, and soon Olive’s story was known everywhere. People were shocked and outraged and intrigued by the markings left on her face and arms by the Mohave tribe. Photos showed her, stoic and serious, in a black dress with her hair pulled back. On her face: five vertical lines and two triangles on either side.


HOW DOES THIS STORY END? Olive re-learned English, attended a “seminary”, read books and wrote poetry. She did quite a bit of public speaking and newspaper interviews, as her tattoos and her story made her rather famous. She seemed to enjoy being a celebrity. Oatman was especially intriguing to the “civilized” people at the time, because when she had been captured, some anthropologists had been coincidentally visiting several other Mohave tribes, and had begun to spread the word about the facial tattoos on young women. According to hearsay, the tattoos implied that the woman was ready to embark in “adult” tribal life. This information, plus the fact that Olive showed up at Fort Yuma in nothing but a mini skirt, fueled rumors of the chaste Mormon girl Olive becoming involved in scenarios of debauchery and sexual exploits. Olive never saw herself as a victim, and when faced with rumors of rape by members of the tribe that had first captured her and her sister, Olive denied them vehemently, saying in an interview: “to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me.” She finally married and moved to Texas, where she became the picture of civility. Oatman was always dressed in the latest fashion and hosted garden parties and was known to visit health spas in Canada. Olive and her husband adopted a daughter and named her Mary Elizabeth after Olive’s mother and sister. At the age of 65, on March 21, 1903, Olive died of a heart attack. Today, the town of Oatman Arizona is named in her honor, and the place where the Oatmans’ wagon was attacked is also known to this day as Oatman flats. ANYTHING ELSE? Fairly Recently (okay, actually 18 years ago), Richard Dillon reported in a famous western magazine that there was evidence that Olive had told a friend that she was married to the son of the Mojave chief and that she gave birth to two boys when married to him. We will never know if she was forced into a tribal marriage, raped, or even if she bore a child in captivity, only to be forced to leave that child behind when she was “rescued.” ________________________ The story of Olive Oatman is unique because it is one of the very few stories of capture and forcible tattooing that can actually be verified with cold hard facts to this day. to read more about Olive Oatman, check out this book:

olive oatman book

or just click here for 10 MYTHS ABOUT OLIVE OATMAN________________________________ i got my info from here here here here here herehere and wikipedia photos are from here and here 🙂

Similar Articles

4 thoughts on “Olive Oatman: First Tattooed Woman in North America?

Comments are closed.