‘The Blue Tat­too’ tells story of Olive Oat­man’s life

Serve Daily - - BUILDING COMMUNITY - By Deb­bie Bal­zotti

Some­times I judge a book by its cover. The haunting por­trait photo of Olive Oat­man from 1848 shows a dark-haired beauty with a tat­tooed face gaz­ing out from the cover. “The Blue Tat­too” tells her story from an Illi­nois child­hood through her later years as a wealthy banker’s wife in Texas. Based on his­tor­i­cal records, the au­thor Mar­got Mif­flin gives read­ers a well-re­searched glimpse into the life of this for­got­ten 19th cen­tury woman.

The Oat­man fam­ily, who were not Mor­mons as de­scribed on the book cover, joined a group call­ing them­selves the Brew­sterites named af­ter their 11-year-old founder James Brew­ster. Al­though Brew­ster’s claims to divine rev­e­la­tion were called phony by the neigh­bor­ing Mor­mon prophet Joseph Smith, his fol­low­ers be­lieved Brew­ster had trans­lated a lost book by an an­cient prophet Es­dras. When Brew­ster promised his “saints” an in­her­i­tance in the val­leys of the Gila and Colorado rivers, the Oat­man fam­ily packed up their wagon.

Sep­a­rat­ing from the com­pany as they reached the South­west, the Oat­mans were at­tacked by the Yava­pais who killed most of the fam­ily and took 14-year-old Olive and her younger sis­ter Mary Ann cap­tive. The girls were used as slaves by their cap­tors and later traded to the Mo­haves, who tat­tooed Olive’s face and ac­cepted her into their tribe.

Af­ter five years, Olive was ran­somed back and re­turned to white so­ci­ety wear­ing only a bark skirt. As news of her ab­duc­tion and res­cue spread, she be­came a na­tional celebrity. The au­thor sym­pa­thet­i­cally de­scribes how ter­ri­ble it was to be put on dis­play. One Star news ar­ti­cle de­scribed peo­ple who would “rush to see her and stare at her, with about as much sense of feel­ing as they would to a show of wild an­i­mals.”

In ad­di­tion to news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, Mif­flin ref­er­ences di­aries and letters from Olive’s fam­ily and friends as well as Olive’s own writ­ings. An in­ter­est­ing postscript was added af­ter the 2009 edi­tion. A li­brar­ian at the LDS Church His­tory Li­brary and Ar­chives in Salt Lake City sent her a tran­scrip­tion of a let­ter in their col­lec­tion which pro­vides a happy end­ing to Olive’s story. She refers to her mar­riage to “my dear hus­band” Mr. John B. Fairchild and her busy life as a lec­turer. Her let­ter says her wed­ding be­gan the “hap­pi­est pe­riod of my life.”

“The Blue Tat­too” is an in­ter­est­ing book about Olive Oat­man and the strug­gles of the south­west in the 19th cen­tury. It’s not “light” read­ing but time well spent. It is avail­able from Ama­zon and Barnes and Noble.

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