Tattoos in the American West



I don’t think anyone will disagree that often research takes us to some very interesting places. When I wrote my new release To Love a Texas Ranger, I needed to know just how prevalent tattoos were among the people who lived in 1877 and I found out some surprising things.

The earliest recorded tattoos were in 12,000 BC in Egypt. The workers building the pyramids wore them. Later the Romans adopted tattooing to mark criminals and slaves.

Interestingly enough, the Greeks used tattoos as a form of communication among spies. Bet you didn’t know that. And other nationalities utilized tattoos in ceremonies.


Borneo had a rather odd practice of tattooing. And maybe they still do. It was customary for a young woman to get a tattoo to advertise a particular skill and that increased her marriageability status. I just wonder what kind of tattoo indicated being a good housekeeper? A broom? A mop?

The American Indians also were big on tattooing. One of their most famous captives—Olive Oatman—was captured in 1851 and then sold to the Mojave tribe where they tattooed her chin with blue dye of some sort. There’s conflicting stories about what the tattoo meant. Some say it marked Olive as a captive and others claim it was a mark of esteem. The western TV series, Hell on Wheels, portrayed her in the show only they named her character Eva.

Love a Texas Ranger smallerIn my new book, a horrible bad guy wears a black widow spider tattoo on his hand. Sam Legend keeps his eyes peeled throughout the book for a man with that spider tattoo. The scene where he finally finds him is pretty gripping.

In Texas, some Legends are born, some are made, and some are created by destiny.

This Legend family has carved their name in blood on the raw Texas land. Sam is tested in ways he couldn’t have expected as secrets are exposed and he finds the love of a lifetime. Only the path is a rocky one. He can’t bear the thought of waking up in the same place every morning for the rest of his life so feels he can’t ask her to marry him. Sierra Hunt has never had a home and dreams of owning one where she can plunk down deep, lasting roots and she won’t give that up—not even for Sam.

I’m giving away one copy of my new book (if you already have it, I can do something else) to one person who can tell me either about their tattoo or one they saw on someone else. This is going to be fun!

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

40 thoughts on “Tattoos in the American West”

  1. Interesting, Linda. I guess I never thought of tattoos before the 20th Century, but it makes sense. I’ve never thought of looking at tattoos in the Navy prior to 1900, now you’ve inspired me to do a little research.

    As always with one of your stories, Sam’s story sounds fabulous!

    • Good Morning, Kirsten! Great to see you, girl! I’m like you, I thought tattoos were something modern. I guess people have always wanted to decorate their skin and declare who they are. I think (but I can’t be positive) that a prehistoric man that was encased in ice then found had a tattoo of some sort. But my memory is a little foggy.

      I love your stories! Good luck and much success with your books and that new boxed set!

  2. I did know about the one white captive tattooed on her chin, very famous but not too much really known about her whole ordeal. Tattoos would have had to have real significance and meaning especially way back then because it gained xa very different significance during wars and even today. I confess I am now 59 and got my 1st tattoo in my mid 50’s and that was done with all females sisters, nieces in the family with a total of 9 of us. Only myself and youngest niece turning 17 were tattoo virgins, but no longer. I went on to get 3 more, all have meaning especially my first, our double infinity tattoo that my 1 niece qanted everyone to have for Family Forever. And since then that niece died unexpectedly a week prior to her 29th birthday. So now it represents so much more to us all. It would be really interesting to learn about tattoo methods and meanings from history. Thank you for bringing it up. I have a Qolf Spirit Guide, if you believe he was a real wolf companion in another lifetime before this one in about 1850’s to 1870’s. I know and believe in reincarnation and when he came to me in spirit one night right by the outside of my right knee I saw and felt him, and the 1st thing out of my mouth was Brother. So he was with me back then in real life and is now with me in spirit, ever have a dog sleeping on your bed and legs? Guess who still does once in a while, haha. Anyway 2 of my tattoos are wolf based and got them done in a single session, my first solo tattooing at about age 54 and only 59 now. Who knows what I still want 2 more, a small andd little bigger one with meaning. May add on my family tattoo for niece, my sister did, but will see. Cannot wait to see what all comments will bring up. Slavery for sure or prisoners for tattoos, even during wars.

    • Good morning, Elaine…..You certainly have a lot of history with tattoos and I can understand that. Yes, tattoos can have a lot of meaning and I see that with your family. I’m really sorry about your niece. That’s horrible. I think tattoos can deepen the family bond. And wow! How amazing that you have a wolf Spirit Guide! I totally believe in that. My brother-in-law had an owl spirit guide that stayed with him throughout his life. My oldest granddaughters have several and they carry a lot of meaning to them. Some people get a tattoo and afterward their life takes a surprising turn and they don’t want it and have to try to get it removed. Your spirit wolf is there when you need him always helping and guiding you through life. I just think that’s such a comfort.

      Good luck with your future ones. Have a wonderful day!

      • Thanks Linda, yes just imagine a 50-ish aunt tattoo virgin and numerous nieces and sisters all had at least 2 tattoos that night except youngest niece turning 17 in days, we 2 had no ink. But now, well, I have 4 total so far, the rest have more including memorial tattoos for lost loved ones. So ink is a memory, be surre you want it, and mean it. It is painful of course it is relative to size and detail of tattoo. The face as in our indian captive that would have really hurt. I wonder what hers was for, marking as a slave or more? Yes, I am lucky I have my wolf with me, prior to that I had just found out about previous life incarnation and the wolf. I saw and felt him, he was real, at least at one time, hence the My Brother falling from my lips so weirdly but feeling just right. So it is nice to know our pets or animals from other lives can be around us in this one in spirit. The funniest part is that I knew nothing of it until 39 turning 40 that whole year my life changed, I grew spiritually by leaps and bounds. Until then I never went looking for what gifts i.e. ESP that I had in me since my family is spiritual and mom knew things. I am an Empath and more but Empaths are common. Anyway yes we all have guides around and my wolf is one but he was real 150 yrs ago. Steel grey wolf color but not sure what kind. Totems and animals are big in Native American lore and religion. I got Animal Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams it is interesting and real. Know of them Linda? Again tattoos among tribes will be a very interesting topic to look up and explore too online for us. Thanks again.

        • Elaine, yes I know of Animal Medicine cards and have done them. Once a long time ago and I can’t remember what my totem animal is. I think it was the mouse. I was so disappointed that I didn’t pay that much attention. I need to do them again. My sister has the cards so I’ll ask her. I feel so drawn to animals and I always put them into my stories. Glad I could bring something interesting to your day.

          • Yes Linda my main card is the Ant, hates them with a passion. But they mean Patience, my weakness so hence the main animal I need to learn and live with Patience as my totem and goal. My challenge, interesting that ants I hate, got the card and that is my life challenge, working on Patience. So ironic but so apropos. Forget where my cards are now since I have moved a half dozen times in 12 years so may end up buying them again. I gave my 1st deck to the niece that died when I got the new expanded deck. So when the time is right they will find their way to me. Have you found Linda, many other types of tattoos in the Wild West that we might see how it evolved with the times and people’s across the nation over the last 150 years?

  3. Very interesting post Linda. I never realized tattoos had been around for so long. We have a man and his wife in church that have lots, and I mean lots, of tattoos. They all have a Bible verse. He uses his to witness to people.

    Thank you for this post. I love learning new things.

    Cindy W.

    • Good morning, Cindy……I’m so glad you came. Very interesting about that man and wife. I know a lot of young people get tattoos just as a lark but for others it’s declaring to the world something about them. I’ve never heard of tattooed Bible verses, but that would certainly make a statement.

      Have a wonderful day!

      • One thing about their tattoos, they have gone to the same tattoo artist for years. The man in our church had a “Jesus Saves” tattoo right at the base of his next in back. After so many years of going to the same place, the tattoo artist got saved! He had someone tattoo “Jesus Saves” on the back of his neck as well. He told the man in our church that after every tattoo he would write down the verse and then looked it up to see what the verse said.

  4. I confess I’m a tattoo novice other than being aware there had been some on certain groups in the South Pacific and Africa, and on Marine and Navy servicemen this century (as well as the horrible Nazi practice). That’s it. I’m obviously clueless other than knowing it has become popular in our culture now. So thank you for an interesting post. I wonder what set off tattooing in our current times. Anyone with any ideas?

    As for your question, Linda, I don’t have a personal experience but I sure do remember when that lovely Keith Urban first came on the scene with his tattoos and his first smash record. 🙂

    • Good Morning, Eliza…….I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Tattoos have been around a very long time. They were a way to mark people so they could keep track of them, they were used as adornment and all sorts of things. I know my granddaughter got hers (a lion’s head) after a very bad time to declare that her illness hasn’t won, a sort of victory. Some have meaning for the person and others (young kids) do it out of rebellion. There are many reasons for getting tattoos. It’s become very commonplace to see tattoos on performers like Keith Urban and especially sports people. In my Men of Legend series, a group of women were tattooed in an insane asylum. It’s very interesting.

      Have a wonderful day!

  5. Very interesting. I have been advised against getting a tattoo for allergy reasons. Two of my daughter’s have them as well as many of their friends. I saw a charm bracelet with the names of family on one charm and their date of the birth on the next. My favorite was a beautifully colored dragon.

    • Good morning, Debra G…….Thank you for coming. Always great to see you. Tattoos are becoming very commonplace. It seems everyone has one of some kind. They can be whatever you want to say or like the dragon something very beautiful. They’re art for you skin.

      Wishing you a gorgeous day!

    • Hi Janine……I’m glad to see you. Tattoos can sure have a lot of meaning. I can understand you wanting to honor and remember your cat. It’s a way also to comfort. You’ll always have Nani close. I hope you get it.

      Have a good day and enjoy the fall!

  6. I got my first tattoo at the age of 60—-a hummingbird on my right arm. I also have a small tattoo of 2 hummingbirds fighting on my left calf.

    • Good morning, Estella……I’m glad you stopped by to join the discussion. I love hummingbirds and so did my mom. They are unique birds. I’ll bet your tattoos are beautiful!

      Wishing you a smiling kind of day!

  7. Hi Linda, I just wanted to let you know I am really enjoying your book. I don’t have any tattoos and I didn’t realize they went that far back in time.

    • Good morning, Quilt Lady…..I’m so glad you’re enjoying Sam Legend’s story. Makes me happy. Who knows…Maybe you’ll get wild and crazy one of these days and go to the tattoo parlor! Ha!

  8. Thank you for your interesting post, Linda. I do not have a tattoo but I always notice them on others. Hope you have a wonderful day!

    • Good morning, Melanie……I’m glad you found my blog of interest. It’s little things like this in my stories that set them apart in some way. I notice tattoos on others also and I don’t like when they think they’ve got to cover every single inch of their skin. That looks kinda gross.

  9. I don’t have any tattoos. My brother is in his early 50’s and has started getting them. I don’t know if I can handle the pain. Guess I’m just a chicken. I love your books.

    • Hi Jennie…..thank you for coming. I’m really happy that you like my books. Tattoos are something that you’re either for them or against. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. They must not be too painful though or people wouldn’t get them. I don’t know.

      Have a good day!

  10. Fascinating subject. (love Hell on Wheels).I have no tattoos but I know a 76 yr. old who is getting a 3D butterfly on her shoulder. Her son committed suicide a while back and she is positive that he has come to her in butterflies.

    • Catslady, that reminded me of a poem I read many years ago about a woman whose son was killed in WWI and how the butterflies always landed on him as a child, and then after he was killed the mom was visited by many, many butterflies of the same variety–yellow ones. Gives me chills to think of it. Wish I could remember the name of it–I may have to go googling.

    • Hi Catslady…..I’m so happy that you found my blog interesting. Your friend’s butterfly tattoo really touched me. We seek comfort wherever we can. I feel her pain and loneliness. A suicide is far worse than a death. Ahhh, another fan of Hell on Wheels. I loved that show! Sure wish they’d put another western on TV.

  11. Such an interesting post, Linda! I am a tattoo virgin. My three boys, however, each have tattoos–one with a few lines from a song that holds a lot of meaning for him. As a nurse, I always found it a bit amusing to have people come in for an injection (flu, pneumonia, immunization) and say they hated needles, or cringe, and yet they had tattoos. Seemed a bit ironic to me 🙂

    • Hi Kathryn…..I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Yes, that’s funny about hating needles then getting tattoos. It seems everyone has one (or several) these days. And I hate when they’ve just gone overboard with it. To each her own though. If they’re happy I’m happy. It’s not me wearing them.

  12. They had a show On PBS about Tattoo’s and how they may have been used to help mentally with physical pain. Otzi or Ice Man was found to have Tattoo’s all over his body but most were in places where joints and muscles are. Such a interesting theory on how tattoo’s were used.

    • Hi Kim……Thanks for coming. I wish I’d have seen that show on PBS. Maybe there’s some scientific reason for a lot. Could be. I certainly wouldn’t discount it.

  13. Linda, that is sooo interesting! Always love your posts, because I always learn something. You know, Eva was my favorite character on HOW. She was so resilient and strong, no matter what happened. It just seemed like she could handle anything…and oh, the ending of that show, her decision, was so poignant and brought tears to my eyes. There is no telling what the real Olive went through. Thanks for another wonderful post!

    • Hi Cheryl…..I’m so glad you enjoyed my blog. I do try to find things of interest and it’s especially nice when it ties into my book. Yes, Eva was very resilient. She was an very special character. As for Olive, it’s anyone’s guess. She was so young when she was taken and she watched her sister die of starvation. She certainly didn’t say too much in the years following her rescue. Some people of the time claim that she enjoyed the experience, but you know how cruel people were back then. Most were really ignorant and biased.

  14. Truly interesting… my sister is the only one in the family that has ever gotten a tattoo. She hid it from my parents for years. I could never trust someone enough to get one… it would have to be absolutely perfect… besides I have enough beauty marks that they create their own patterns, LOL.

    • Hi Colleen…..Great to see you. I’m glad you enjoyed my subject. A lot of kids get tattoos and hide them from their parents. I’m sure your sister was really afraid you’d tell them. I kinda agree with you about trusting them. I’ve heard of people getting hepatitis from the needles and most of the places I’ve seen have seemed dirty. About yours…you got the natural kind. Ha!

  15. I don’t have any and nobody close to me does. I don’t like the big obnoxious type tattoos, but I think the tiny ones, hidden, are cute sometimes.

    • Hi Susan…..I think if they’re done in good taste they look a lot better than the large in-your-face kind. I just don’t get people who want to cover every inch of their skin. But there are lots like that. I guess to each his own.

  16. Very interesting post!!! I had my first tattoo at almost 60. It is a stack of books with a cup of coffee on the top! I’m a librarian so you know I love books and can’t live without coffee!! it’s on my left inside forearm. BTW, my hubby and I both love your books.

    • Hi Martha….I’m so glad you came. I can see a librarian getting a tattoo of books and coffee. It’s perfect. Thank you so much for liking my books. Glad to know your hubby reads them too. I’m always a little surprised at the men. But that’s great!

  17. Congratulations on the release.

    I finally got to read my copy of TO LOVE A TEXAS RANGER. It took a vacation and leaving home to get the time to do it. Enjoyed it and look forward to the rest of the series.

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