By Deb Miller Marschke
In July 2017, I attended “Old Fort MacArthur Days” which is a multi-disciplined living history event. It’s held annually on the grounds of Fort MacArthur in the city of San Pedro. Each era that is represented here has a section of the grounds, and the re-enactors set up a “period” camp. The part I enjoy the most are the costumes. The re-enactors wear period attire which is as accurate as possible, and these folks wander about. For those that truly enjoy history, this event is like a really weird dream; you are walking around in your street clothes amongst the Romans, Vikings, Yankee soldiers, pirates, and Victorian ladies.
Making costumes has been one of my most favorite hobbies since I was a kid. I enjoy the challenge of conceptualizing my ideas, constructing the outfit, and the pleasure of wearing the finished costume. So as I floated dreamily around Old Fort MacArthur days, the urge to make a costume for next year grasped me. I found myself in one of the exhibitor’s canvas tent, which was set up as a general store. There were historically accurate patterns for sale, so many choices. I needed to decide what era I was going to work in, so I began to think about famous women throughout history. I decided that it would be fun to depict Olive Oatman, and I purchased a historically accurate pattern for a Victorian era bodice and skirt. I also purchased a lace parasol and a straw bonnet.
I chose Olive Oatman because her haunting photographs stood out in my mind. I only knew the basics of her story: she was on the emigrant trail, had been captured by Indians, and had lived amongst them long enough to receive a disfiguring tattoo on her chin. So before I made the costume, I needed to learn more about her story. There are a few books about her, the most well-known is also the first book, written by Royal Stratton. Stratton was a minister, and he stepped forward to shelter and protect her as she reintegrated into society. I chose to read “The Blue Tattoo, The Life of Olive Oatman” by Margot Mifflin first. This book was first released in 2009, so I thought it would be a good choice if I wanted to know Olive’s life story.
The book was excellent. Not only did the author provide every detail that is currently known about Olive’s life, she also provided information about the history of the era and what lead up to her ordeal. Therefore, Olive’s story can be more broadly understood. The material is well researched and fully annotated. Though I found the first chapters slightly tedious, my interest and fascination with Olive’s story was complete by the time I finished the book. This is not simply a story about a woman who was captured and rescued in the “old west.” This is a story about a young girl, raised under the heavy restrictions of the Mormon religion and the Victorian society. In 1850, this 13 year old blindly and faithfully embarked with her family of 9 on a journey to an unknown land, following her parents utopian ideals. The entire endeavor was doomed from the beginning because of misguided religious zealotry and misinformation about the region they sought to establish their new life. She witnessed the violent murder of her family, she and her sister Mary Ann were captured, and forced to walk barefoot for three days at a brisk pace (according to Stratton, they walked 200 miles). They were enslaved by Yavapai Apaches for about a year. The two girls were purchased from her captors by the Mojaves, walked another 350 miles (per Stratton), and arrived on the banks of the Colorado River near present day Needles, CA. At this juncture, Olive’s story becomes a mystery that author Margot Mifflin has sought to understand in her book. Though the book written by Stratton portrays her assimilation into the Mojave tribe as a tale of slavery and brutality, Mifflin has research to prove otherwise. Olive possibly enjoyed life as a Native American with social freedoms she would have been denied with the Whites, despite the crude conditions. During a regional famine, Mary Ann died of starvation and Olive’s ordeal was hers alone. She believed her entire family had perished. She had no idea where she was and where the nearest white people could be found. At this time in history, the Mojave tribes were fairly isolated from outsiders. Olive became fully assimilated into the Mojave tribe, and lived for 5 years as a Mojave. She had no way of knowing that her brother, Lorenzo, had also survived the attack. Lorenzo, orphaned at age 14, had been struggling alone during Olive’s ordeal to find the means to locate and rescue his sisters. She was reunited with Lorenzo at Fort Yuma. One would think this was a happy ending for the two Oatman children, but in actuality it was an entire new subset of problems and difficulties for them to endure. Olive was an instant celebrity, but reintegrating into society was complicated for her. She was marked with the facial tattoo and therefore the curious public treated her like a circus freak. It was assumed that she had sexual contact with her captors and no longer a virgin. Rumors abounded that she had abandoned half breed children. She had no money, no means of financial support, her future prospects for marriage were bleak, and no relatives stepped forward to shepherd the vulnerable young woman as she entered society as an adult. At age 19, she was close to being considered an unmarried “Old Maid.” Olive and Lorenzo continued to be victims because the minister who “rescued” them manipulated and exploited them. Royal B. Stratton put his evangelical career on hold under the auspice of benevolence, but it appears his motives were monetary; he generated a steady income by herding Olive and Lorenzo around on a lecture circuit and promoting his book. Stratton benefited by selling 30,000 copies of his book which was rife with sensationalism. Yet, both surviving children managed to achieve a “normal” life by breaking free from Stratton, getting married and slipping quietly into traditional societal roles until their natural death. It was rumored that she died in an insane asylum in New York in 1877, but she actually died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903 and is buried in Sherman, Texas. It seems that Olive started out as one of the West’s great heroines, but her life story has slipped into obscurity. The entire tale is quite remarkable. Given the social mores for a single woman in the 1850’s, her survival of this ongoing ordeal is absolutely astonishing.
After reading this book, I became obsessed with Olive Oatman. I was energized in knowing her story, and set to work on making my costume. The pattern I had purchased was an exact replica of the era. I am an experienced seamstress, but I found the garment challenging to construct. Learning about how these dresses during the 1850-1865 time era was an invaluable experience for me. Despite the fact that clothing in this era was painstakingly handmade, I found that the Victorian dress was more well-constructed than present-day clothing. The costume consisted of two pieces: a bodice and a skirt. The pieces were fully lined, so essentially I made two outfits melded into one. I purchased 8 yards of broadcloth, 6.5 yards of muslin, and 16 yards of trim braid. I chose these fabrics because they were affordable, so had I opted for authenticity, the dress would have been made of silk. Silk is $15.00 per yard! The bodice also contained boning as a support and stiffener. My husband Steve and I have fun discussing the boning, because if the dress was authentic, I would need to acquire strips of whale baleen. Though Steve’s suggestion to use plastic zip-ties he had bought from Harbor Freight was considered, I did purchase prefabricated boning (now called “stays”) from the yardage store. As the garments were constructed, I made the decision to deviate from authenticity so the final outfit would be more comfortable to wear. Nevertheless, I learned a tremendous lesson by working on this outfit and I will enjoy scrutinizing authentic historical garments in the future. I worked on the dress in my spare time over 10 days. I used a modern sewing machine, but much of the finish work needed to sewn by hand.
On October 6, 2017, I arrived at Goffs, CA to attend the MDHCA annual Rendezvous. It was here I planned to “become Olive” and walk around in the costume. This was a total surprise for the attendees of the event, as I had not discussed my plan with anyone. Initially I intended to wear the Oatman dress in 2018 at Old Fort MacArthur days. However, I also considered that the crowd at MDHCA would recognize the character and appreciate my effort as well. I was fortunate to acquire a clip-in hair piece that matched my hair color; for only $12.00, I instantly had longer hair styled in beautiful ringlets. All I needed was Olive’s tattoo. Olive’s chin tattoo was blue; the Mojaves used a cactus needle and powdered rock to tattoo their faces. Had I not been scheduled to travel on business the following week (and meet the company Vice President), I had considered using a Sharpie marker. I needed to use something that would come completely off after the weekend! I had experimented with waterproof eye pencils, which proved to work adequately. I put on the historical garment, fashioned my hair, marked my chin, and became Olive Oatman.
As I ambled around at Goffs and told Olive’s story, my education continued. It was 90 degrees that weekend. The dress was restrictive and hot in some respects, but some features of the dress were airy and loose. It required a certain level of commitment to wear the costume in the heat, but when folks commented on this I would joke, “I am suffering for my art.” I actually enjoyed this exercise, for it promoted thinking and learning more about what it was like to live in this era, and what it may have been like to be Olive Oatman. Ultimately, I was asked to give an impromptu presentation about the Oatman story. Though I had not planned on speaking in front of a crowd, I was amongst friends. I enjoyed the chance to add one more item to my personal resume: I am now a history re-enactor!
Currently, my strange obsession with Olive Oatman continues. I’ve continually learned more about her. I just finished reading the original account of her captivity by the minister Royal B. Stratton. I found it difficult to read because of the 1890’s “melodramatic” writing style. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to study this work to understand how the Oatman children were exploited. Someday, I would like to read the transcripts of her first interviews when she arrived at Fort Yuma. Maybe someday I will travel to the Oatman family massacre site in Arizona, or take the time to visit her grave next time I am in Texas. I will be looking for Olive as I continually explore our beloved Mojave. But for today, I am keeping her story alive by telling it. Naturally, I wholeheartedly recommend the book “The Blue Tattoo” by Mifflin. It’s reasonably priced on Amazon. Perhaps you will be as intrigued by this story as I have been; maybe not as obsessed as I have become, but we can discuss her story further and perpetuate the momentum of this educational experience. ~Deb