THE BLUE TATTOO: THE STORY OF OLIVE OATMAN

A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) set guidelines for a uniquely American literary genre, the captivity narrative. In its pages, the reader learns of Mrs. Rowlandson’s ordeal when captured by a Narragansett tribe, her bravery, her chastity, her subsequent release, and her assimilation back into civilization. Most captivity narratives that followed, and there were several thousand, pursue the same pattern of redemption. The majority were overseen by male editors more attuned to audience than accuracy.

Nearly two centuries later, two young Mormon girls saw their parents and siblings slaughtered in what is now west central Arizona, and were taken prisoners by a roving band of Indians. Olive Oatman’s “sufferings” were recounted in Life Among the Indians, later published as The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. First appearing in 1857, the book underwent many revisions, appeared in several editions, and remains in print today. Perhaps because Olive Oatman’s chin famously was tattooed in blue, her story became one of the most popular captivity narratives ever written.

Most historians agree that the retelling of the Oatman girls’ travails differs greatly from Olive’s actual experiences. What she reported when she first was ransomed, and what the Reverend Royal B. Stratton persuaded her to say a few years later, are at odds. Later, on the lecture circuit, her story underwent more revision. Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman examines the multiple realities—the knowable facts, and the embroidery that later occurred. Mifflin’s account is a fascinating reconstruction of texts and subtexts that says as much about American cultural enthusiasms as it does about Olive’s experiences.

Olive and her sister Mary Ann, who died after four years in captivity, were probably captured by Yavapai, not by Apaches. They were not treated particularly well, more like slaves than as precious commodities. After two years, the Mohaves bought the two girls, now aged sixteen and nine, and apparently treated them like family. Certainly Olive had nothing but good things to say about her time with the Mohaves, and her initial descriptions match other accounts of the tribe. They were peaceful, domesticated, meticulously groomed, disdainful of violence, quite civilized, in fact.

When the Reverend Stratton got hold of her story, however, that characterization underwent radical revision, turning the natives into savage, unkempt warriors. Under his guidance, Olive’s recollections became a formulaic captivity narrative, with all the necessary accoutrements of suffering and chastity. Mifflin counters Stratton’s reconstruction of Olive’s life, beginning with the fact that he excised her Mormon heritage and her family’s religious reasons for their westward trek. Using contemporary memoirs and historic documents, Mifflin demonstrates that Olive’s first descriptions of her experiences are much more likely than her later remembrances. Mifflin also puts this particular captivity narrative in its historic context, showing why each later revision echoed what was going on in the American psyche. She touches on religion, abolition, suffrage, and the feminist movement as she draws a sweeping panorama of how captivity narratives have always satisfied national needs.

A journalist, not a historian, Mifflin nonetheless has done her homework. Her bibliography is extensive; her generalizations, cogent and coherent. The Blue Tattoo goes far beyond a simple reconstruction of the facts, as it investigates the long life of a woman first captured by Indians but later captured by the men in her life. Stratton, Olive’s brother, and ultimately her husband were all men who manipulated her in one way or another. In some ways, Olive Oatman never really did escape captivity, as Mifflin so credibly demonstrates.

Also available by Margot Mifflin: Bodies of Subversion.

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