Digging behind lurid myths of how Red Indians treated enslaved 'white savages'


PATRICK SKENE CATLINGreviews The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive OatmanBy Margot Mifflin University of Nebraska Press 259pp, $24.95

MELODRAMATIC TALES of brutal Red Indians seizing innocent white girls in the days of American westward migration were 19th-century bestsellers. Margot Mifflin has submitted the most popular captivity story of the genre to the systematic scrutiny of investigative journalism and academic analysis, yet its intrinsic gaudiness alluringly endures.

Royce Oatman, an antipolygamist Mormon from Vermont, took his Illinois wife and their seven children west for what Mifflin calls “gold and God”.

Instead of following Brigham Young and the Mormon majority to the relative security of the settlement that would become Salt Lake City, Oatman opted fatally for the southern pioneer route that was supposed to lead them to the rich new Eden of California. They never got there.

Native Americans of the fierce Yavapai tribe in 1851 massacred the Oatman family in what was then northern Mexico and is now Arizona, except for Olive (13), Mary Ann (7) and Lorenzo (15) who was wounded and abandoned alive. Their attackers kept the girls captive for a year, then let the Mohaves have them in exchange for two horses, three blankets, some vegetables and beads. White girls were considered valuable hostages when Indians were outnumbered and threatened by white settlers.

Mary Ann languished and died in captivity; however, Olive evidently flourished. She learned to speak the Mohave language, and they tattooed her face with vertical and horizontal blue lines from her lower lip to the point of her chin. This did not stigmatise her as an imprisoned enemy, but signified acceptance, assimilation and endearment. Members of the tribe were similarly decorated.

When, after four years, the Mohaves released her in a further trade, Americans were eager to learn all about her life as a “white savage”. Since then, there have been “countless books and articles – modern and Victorian”, Mifflin writes, “that read like Rashomons of revisionist history and romantic conjecture . . . Because her story was saturated with violence, military intrigue and sexual innuendo, it quickly became legend.”

The most popularly influential account of the Oatmans’ ordeal was produced by the Rev Royal Byron Stratton, an opportunistic Methodist clergyman, who made their saga a goldmine of his very own. Life Among the Indians: Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls, was presented as Olive’s and Lorenzo’s joint autobiography, but Mifflin justifiably suspects that it was “heavily ventriloquised”. She compared the simplicity of the Oatmans’ letters with the grandiloquence of Stratton’s introduction and commentaries. Here, for example, is his response to the death of Mary Ann:

“Precious girl! Sweet flower! Nipped in the bud by untimely and rude blasts. Yet the fragrance of the ripe virtues that budded and blossomed upon so tender and frail a stalk shall not die.”

Though the Mohaves apparently treated Olive as kindly as one of their own people, Stratton makes Olive seem to accuse them of “stupid, barbarous inhumanity” and suggests that any relief from her suffering was due to divine intervention, rather than the captors’ magnanimity.

Stratton’s commercially successful book and Olive’s ghost-written lectures must have done a great deal to incite racial hatred. Mifflin’s extensive list of acknowledged sources indicates how hard she has worked to establish the facts behind this “ever-evolving myth” but, she admits, “the only constant about the Oatman story is that no two authors agree on what happened”. One can read this work of non-fiction as if it were a sensational novel – with progressive feminist implications.

Patrick Skene Catling is a novelist and author of children’s books