In August of 1850 the Oatman family left Independence, Missouri and joined a Brewsterite wagon train bound for California. Travelling through Arizona alone after the hardships of the trail broke up the wagon train, the Oatmans were attacked by the Yavapais. Both parents and seven of the children were killed. One son was left for dead but survived. Fourteen year old Olive and seven year old Mary Ann were taken captive. After a year of rough treatment from the Yavapais, the Oatman girls were traded to the Mohave who adopted them. While with the Mohave, Olive and Mary Ann were given blue chin and arm tattoos that marked them as members of the tribe. A drought led to starvation among the Mohave and Mary Ann died in 1855. Although she was acculturated into the tribe, Olive was returned to white society when word of her existence reached the US Army post at Fort Yuma in 1856. A bestselling book was published about her experiences and Olive spent several years on the lecture circuit before marrying a Texan banker and retiring from public life.
Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo investigates Olive’s life, working to separate fact from fiction. Olive’s story was part of a popular genre of captive narratives, bestselling books about women who had been kidnapped by Native Americans. Her story was filtered through a Methodist minister who wrote her biography and arranged her lecture tour. The Blue Tattoo describes Olive as a woman caught between two cultures. Embraced by the Mohave but eventually forced to leave them, Olive could never fully rejoin white society, her blue tattoo serving a permanent reminder of her time among the Natives.