Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oregon Trail & The Oatmans

The Oatman tale lends a jolting perspective to the trip west to California. My limited exposure to history contributed to my shock at the journey's difficulty. My most recent exposure to this portion of history (besides Mifflin's novel) is from an Oregon Trail emulator, which is hardly representative of emigrants' difficulties. (I bet families that had made the trek would be furious to learn a game was created about the journey, trivializing the starvation and death many of them faced as they made their way west.)
"You have died of dysentery."
The striking aspect of this story to me was how it parallels that of Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian genocide survivor. My friend, a PhD student in rhetoric, summarized her story to me, and reading The Blue Tattoo recalled aspects of her story.
Olive Oatman
Aurora Mardiganian

Similarly to Olive, Aurora was attacked and watched her family die around her then captured and forced to walked 1,400 miles where she was sold into slavery. She escaped, eventually seeking refuge in the United States with the help of the American Committee for Armenian and Assyrian Relief and the Near East Relief.

While in New York, a screenwriter named Harvey Gates picked up her story and sensationalized it, spreading the narrative across the country. For two years, her tragedy captivated audiences and generated lots of revenue before the public turned elsewhere for entertainment. Aurora suffered lasting psychological trauma and depression decades after the attack. She lived until the 1990s, when she died in a nursing home and was cremated and buried with in a cemetery with over 2000 people, name unmarked.

These two stories highlight the exploitation of the women described. In both cases, women endured a heart-wrenching tragedy and were then exploited by enterprising writers for a profit. Their clothing in the pictures above emphasize their exoticism and the media focused on religious narratives in the story. The nation was mesmerized by their stories, but as they got older, married and moved out of the limelight, they were all but forgotten and died alone.

While reading about these stories, I couldn't help but feel sorry for both these women. For Olive, my pity arose from her being taken away from her homeland with the Mohaves and flung into a life of show business. I felt bad for both when learning about their eventual fates, lonely and depressed.

I was hoping to wrap up this blog post with something inspiring to end on a happier note, but quite frankly I don't know of anything good to write about these to biographies. These women suffered tragedy and then public exploitation before finally being ignored through suffering and death. The exploitation of these women were wrong, and I can only hope that the propagandized retelling of real tragedies like theirs is stopped.

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