Ray Wylie Hubbard, on his album Delirium Tremolos, describes a woman with a tribal tattoo above her hips, a woman who "wears her ink well." Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of Olive Oatman.
She was 14 when she and her family found themselves stuck thigh-deep in a flooded Gila River. It was February 1851. Evening fell. Somehow, they all struggled onto a tiny island in the middle of the river. It would be their last night together.
The horse was dead, the cattle exhausted. The food was mostly gone. Many of the children, ages 2 to 17, had walked much of the 80 miles from the Pima village at Maricopa Wells. They were still 100 miles from Fort Yuma.
Margot Mifflin, in The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, describes the scene that night. While the children huddled around a sputtering fire, their father, Royce, broke down and wept over the disaster. His pregnant wife did what she could. The wind howled, and an unforgiving moon stared down.
The Oatmans were Mormons, part of a splinter sect called "Brewsterites." The group was named after 11-year-old James Colin Brewster, a boy who claimed to have received divine revelations. Mormon founder Joseph Smith was not pleased. It didn't help that Brewster's group came out against polygamy.
Brewster claimed that the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers was the "promised land," an Eden of rich soil, big timber and Indians who were "friendly, or at least not dangerous."
The period from 1849 to 1853 was a time of mass movement across the country. A quarter-million people headed west to California and Oregon, seeking silver, gold or some personal version of heaven. They traveled the Santa Fe Trail, the original Route 66, toward the setting sun. Many found only death.
Nearly 100 Brewsterites departed Independence, Mo., in July 1850. Within the first 20 miles, the group fell to bickering. Upon reaching New Mexico, Brewster decided that the "promised land" was actually closer to Socorro, N.M., shaving some 600 miles off the journey.
Five feet tall, bearded and described by one member of the party as a "key troublemaker, sinfully reckless, and ... a most dangerous companion," Royce Oatman disagreed with Brewster. Less than half the original group continued on to Tucson. The group split up again after they arrived here in early January 1851.
Continuing on, Royce turned north, crossing the desert to Maricopa Wells with just two other families. They arrived to find a midwinter drought and 1,000 starving Indians. The other two families decided to rest for a week. In spite of warnings from the local Pima Indians, Royce pushed on.
They finally made it across the river. The cattle balked at climbing up the trail onto a limestone bluff. Unpacking the wagon, the family hand-carried their belongings up the hill.
Nineteen Indians, probably Yavapais, emerged from the desert. Demanding food, they turned on the family, and it was quickly over. They murdered all but Olive, her 7-year-old sister, Mary Ann, and 15-year-old Lorenzo, who they clubbed over the head, tossed over an embankment and left for dead.
They looted the wagon then started the Oatman girls on a hellish, barefoot, four-day, 60-mile journey to a place probably somewhere near present-day Congress, Ariz. They were whipped and treated quite poorly. After a year of misery, they were traded to the Mohave tribe for two horses, three blankets, some vegetables and beads.
The Mohave were far kinder to the Oatman girls. Unfortunately, about a year after arriving in the Mohave camp, Mary Ann died after a poor harvest. Olive was alone. She would spend a total of four years living among the Mohave. Becoming part of the tribe, Olive was given a nickname and then a clan name, and she ultimately received a traditional chin tattoo. She was freed in February 1856, at 19, tanned, tattooed and painted. Her journey had just begun.
Much has been written about Olive Oatman. In The Blue Tattoo, Margot Mifflin slices away the decades of mythology and puts the story in its proper historical context. What emerges is a riveting, well-researched portrait of a young woman—a survivor, but someone marked for life by the experience.