The Olive Oatman story has long eluded the naked truth and I mean that both literally and figuratively. Here is a painting where I am attempting to capture the essence of Mary Ann Oatman during her captivity among the Mojaves:
Mary Ann was nine-years-old when she and her older sister Olive, were kidnapped by Indians (probably Western Yavapais) west of present day Gila Bend, Arizona. The raiding party killed her parents and four of her siblings, although a brother, Lorenzo, 14, survived. The two girls were marched, bare-footed, some 90 miles north to a village where they were treated brutally, as slaves.
About a year later, a party of Mojaves came to the village and bought the girls, for two horses, blankets and vegetables. The girls were then marched northwest to the Mojave Valley, which straddles the Colorado River and they were taken into the home of one of the Mojave chiefs, on the site of the present day town of Needles, California. What happened next is very controversial.
As the folks over at Wikipedia put it, "much of what actually occurred during her time with the Native Americans remains unknown."
Here's the essence of the controversy: Olive and her sister either spent their time with the Mojaves as semi-house-guest-slaves (this is Olive's version after her release), or, she was married to a chief's son and had two children. And, by the way, a contemporary newspaper report claims both Olive and Mary Ann were married to Mojave chiefs. If true, this makes it all the more sordid because Mary Ann couldn't have been more than 12 or 13-years-old.
One of the glaring omissions in Olive's version of her post-captivity-story is that a large U.S. expedition led by Lt. A. W. Whipple came through the Mojave Valley in February of 1854 and spent a week there meeting all of the prominent chiefs and traversing the area where Olive claimed to have been held. If she wanted to be saved, why didn't she make herself known? Here is what Whipple had to say about captives he saw:
February 25, 1854
"It is said that several sad-looking fellows in the crowd are slaves, prisoners taken in the last expedition against the Cocopas. In the military code of this people, a captive is forever disgraced. Should he return to his tribe, his own mother would discard him as unworthy of notice. There are only two Cuchans, Jose and his friend; others are said to be on their way hither."
—Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple
From this we know that captured "slaves" among the Mojaves were beneath contempt, which is not an unusual cultural perspective for people at that time (see: blacks in Alabama and a couple dozen other states).
Whipple also had this to say about the young women he saw:
"Young girls wear beads. When married their chins are tattooed with vertical blue lines, and they wear a necklace with a single sea-shell in front, curiously wrought."
Well, Olive Oatman had blue vertical lines tattooed on her chin and here is the sticking point: Whipple and his men never mention seeing the Oatman girls. Were the two girls hidden from the visitors? It's possible. Or, were they hiding themselves because they didn't want to be found? The latter gains some credence when we take into consideration Olive's later account of exactly when Mary Ann died of starvation. She kept moving the date, trying to avoid the obvious question: if Mary Ann was ill in February of 1854 why didn't Olive reach out to the U.S. expedition? The inevitable conclusion, at least to me, is Mary Ann had already died, and Olive had been assimilated into the tribe, had children by a Mojave, and didn't want to be found.
As for portraying Mary Ann as topless, here is a photograph of Mojave women from that time period and as you can see they are mostly without tops.
However, after Olive was released, her story was told in a best-selling book, "Captivity of The Oatman Girls" by Royal B. Stratten a charismatic Methodist minister and author. Even as puritanical as the times were, and as buttoned-up as Stratten was, the illustrations in the book show both girls topless and wearing bark skin skirts in the style of the Mojaves.
Still, I realize that it is jarring to our modern sensibilities—and taste!—to show a 13-year-old captive topless, which is why I chose to tone down the nakedness and concentrate on her face. But, even in doing that I am caving to the very strong cultural current to CLEAN UP THIS STORY. This speaks to the enigmatic controversy of this story for the past 165 years. To give you an idea on how strong this current is, someone recently told me the esteemed historian Sharlot Hall privately believed Olive Oatman had children while she was a captive, but when it came time to write about Olive for publication, she left that part out. Wow! Now THAT is a strong current to try and swim against.