A number of my recent visitors have landed here after searching for Hell on Wheels, quite a few of them looking for Eva, the “tattooed harlot,” as one of the less savory characters called her before describing her talents in imaginative and largely unrepeatable detail.
The first shot of Eva, as she turned to face the young Irishman (and the camera), shocking him with the tattoos on her face, may have been the moment Hell on Wheels hooked me. The romantic tale of the white woman captured by Indians, only to be swept off her feet by the handsome and noble warrior, has been a popular one over the years, and as a reader I’ve enjoyed the fantasy. But as an anthropologist, I know that’s not the way it was.
More than a few white women and girls were indeed taken captive by various Native American tribes, but their stories were rarely if ever romantic. Teenagers and adult women were generally put to work as slaves, although young children of both sexes might be adopted. Some captives escaped, some were ransomed, some disappeared from history.
One of the most famous captives was Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken by the Comanche in 1836, when she was nine or ten years old. Her life with them was by all acounts hard, but she stayed with them for almost twenty-five years, eventually marrying a warrior and bearing three children. She was forcibly rescued by Texas Rangers when she was thirty-four, along with her two-year-old daughter, who died shortly thereafter. Cynthia Ann escaped at least once, trying to return to her Comanche family, and never adapted to life among her white relatives. But her name lived on in her son, Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche, who led his people into the twentieth century.
[A note on Cynthia Ann, added 2/16/14: In researching Cynthia Ann’s story for his book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Glenn Frankel located unpublished notes left by her relatives, primarily her first cousin Susan Parker St. John. According to these records, Cynthia Ann’s small daughter Prairie Flower lived to about the age of nine, but the romantic legend that she was sent off to school in New Orleans is probably only a fantasy. As unhappy as Cynthia Ann undoubtedly was, her family denied that she ever “escaped” from them. She disappeared from history after the census of 1870, probably dying within the next few years, in her mid to late forties.]
Olive Oatman‘s story was less romantic. When I saw Eva’s tattoos I thought immediately of Olive, and she was in fact an inspiration for Eva, or at least for her tattoo. Olive was taken captive by the Yavapai in 1851, when she was fourteen, and sold a year or so later to the Mohave, who adopted her and tattooed her face. She was ransomed after about five years and became something of a celebrity, eventually marrying and settling in Texas.
Olive fared better than Cynthia Ann on returning to white society. Cynthia Ann’s story may have been the inspiration for the John Wayne film The Searchers, which portrayed yet another aspect of the captivity story, the attitude that a girl captured by Indians was better off dead. The movie (and the novel it was based on, by Alan LeMay) tells of the obsessive search for a stolen girl by her uncle–who would sooner kill her than let her live with the Comanche.
Eva’s fate as a prostitute, scarred for life by her captivity, scorned for her presumed sexual relations with her captors, may not have been typical but it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Eva, with her jaunty hat, her corsets, and her growing fondness for Elam Ferguson, is a favorite of mine. Played by Robin McLeavy, an Australian stage actress, Eva is listed as a recurring character on Hell on Wheels. I hope she sticks around. I want to know her story.