Prof. Margot Mifflin Writes Biography of 19th Century Pioneer Olive Oatman

  • By Newmark J-School Staff

Prof. Margot Mifflin’s biography of Olive Oatman, a 19th century frontierswoman known for the blue chin tattoo she acquired after she was kidnapped by one native tribe and adopted by another, has been released by University of Nebraska Press. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman follows Oatman from her early childhood in Fulton, Ill. to her teen years in southwest Arizona with the Yavapai and Mohave Indians to her life in Victorian society after her ransom by the U.S. Army.

Mifflin, who heads the Arts & Culture Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said she discovered Oatman after a lecture she gave on her first book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (Powerhouse Books, 1997, 2001). “A graduate student approached me and told me about Oatman, who predated the tattooed circus ladies of the 1880s in my slideshow by decades. She turned out to be the first known tattooed woman in the U.S., though she wasn’t voluntarily tattooed.”

Mifflin went on to say: “I couldn’t believe what she’d experienced: She saw her family killed, was kidnapped with her sister by one tribe and adopted by another, watched her little sister die of starvation, and years later when she was fully acculturated as a Mohave, she was unwillingly ransomed back by the U.S. Army in Yuma, Calif,, and became a celebrity.”

“A bestselling biography of her was published a year after her ransom,” Mifflin added, “and the Methodist minister who wrote it twisted her story into a bigoted rant against ‘savage’ Indians, when in fact she was a white captive who’d crossed over and didn’t want to return. Most of the material that allowed me to disprove much of his story was in interviews she gave to newspapers (newly born in California at the time) and to military personnel who spoke to her immediately after her ransom, before the minister got hold of her.”

Mifflin said that before she began researching Oatman in 2003, no one had written a serious biography of her, though dozens of articles had been published, most of which contradicted each other. But a lot had been done with Oatman’s story. It had inspired novels and children’s books; it had been an episode of “Death Valley Days” starring Ronald Reagan, and it was the basis of Elmore Leonard’s story “The Tonto Woman.”

Read more about the book in this story from The Journal News of Rockland County.