Olive Oatman: the girl with the tattooed face

Olive Oatman is the first white woman who has been tattooed in the U.S.A. Her story is fascinating: kidnapped by American Indians she was embraced in their community and marked with their signs. She spent many years far from home until she was rescued… or not?

Born in Illinois on 7th September 1838, Olive was one of the six children of Mormon Roys and Mary Ann Oatman. In 1851 the whole family went on a trip to California but during the travel they got lost. They arrived nearby the current Arizona lands when they were attacked by the Yavapai Indians. Only Olive, her brother Lorenzo and her sister Mary Ann survived. The young man succeeded to go home pretending he died during the attack. The sisters instead were taken and thet worked for their captors for about one year and then they were traded to another tribe, the Mohave’s. Here their captivity ended as they were raised as part of the community.

Olive Oatman | Tattoo Life
Olive Oatman, via Wikipedia | Tattoo Life

The Mohave people tattooed both of the girls to make them integrate such as they were their own daughters. Unfortunately, Mary Ann died soon after because of a drought which decimated the Natives themselves. Olive survived again and she lived with her new family for some years, perfectly assimilated with them. It was in 1856 that a band found her and brought her back to the white American society. Despite anyone thought she had been saved, being separated from her new home devastated her psychologically. Olive was, in fact, truly happy among the Mohave.

She suffered for many time both for the separation and her condition of being a tattooed girl in a society which did not really accept tattoos.

Everyone got to know her story and she became a celebrity but her suffering lasted a lifetime. She died on 20th March 1903 because of a heart attack.

Olive Oatman’s tattoo consist of five lines made of blue dust going from the lower lip to the chin and four more lines which extend two to the left and two the right cheek. It was a deep cultural symbol. The Mohave did not tattoo Olive to submit her to the tribe, on the contrary they did it to welcome her. Back home, it stayed with her as the symbol of her Mohave past, a time in which she was happy and accepted. It was a reminder to a better condition which was lost forever and this caused her deep pain. Many say that her tattoo also reminded her deepest secret: she actually never wanted to come home.

This fascinating story soon become legend and inspired movies, fictions, artworks, books and music plays coming to the recent Hell on Wheels whose character Eva wears the same tattoo as Olive.