Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mary Ann Oatman: The Naked Truth Meets Cleaned Up History

May 31, 2017
   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:

Daily Whip Out: "Mary Ann Oatman"

   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."

   Boy Howdy.

   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."

Olive Oatman with the blue, vertical tattoos and her brother Lorenzo, 1855

   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.

Topless Mojave women at Fort Mojave

   Several people have criticized me for showing her topless. The reasoning goes that the Mojaves perhaps respected her Christian beliefs and allowed her and her sister to wear tops. This assumes they spent their time with the Mojaves as glorified exchange students. As ridiculous as I think this is, it is somewhat possible since when Mary Ann died in the Mojave camp where they lived, the Mojaves wanted to burn her body, as is their custom and belief, and Olive pleaded with her host family to allow her to be buried, which the chief, against his instincts, finally allowed.

   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.

Mary Ann and Olive as illustrated in the 1856 book.

  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.

Mojave women au naturel

   By the way, the Mojave woman seated at left appears to be playing footsie with the woman seated at right.

"I think to depict Mary Ann, other than as she was, is a disservice to her, history and truth."
—Carole Glenn


  1. Some people just want the fairy tale versions. Keep up the great work, BBB.

  2. I agree that their story should be told as it actually happened.

  3. I have been interested in the Oatman massacre for years. I have many questions, including the one about Olive being married or not. She said she was not molested, 'to their credit.' Perhaps the most burning question is, what is that enormous bump on Lorenzo's head?

  4. BBB- Have admired some of your work but your characterization of Mary Ann is absolute bullshit! She was seven when captured, probably 9 or 10 when she died and certainly not old enough for the chest you give her in that disrespectfully erotic drawing. There is so much about Olive some of you have still not figured out! Do more research than reading a couple of books, including hers, basically written by Stratton! And for "Hell on Wheels" to have suggested that Olive was similar to their prostitute character is beyond forgivable! You want a villain in the whole Olive Oatman story, look no further than the weasel Quechan Francisco who eventually got his just desserts at Maricopa Wells! Also, for someone associated to True West, you guys sure have still never done Commodore Perry Owen's complete story justice.

  5. Anonymous7:04 AM

    I have no issue with her being topless, but at her age she would have only had buds.


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