Published on January 27, 2013 by Amy
Juana Maria (died October 18, 1853), better known to history as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island (her Indian name is unknown), was a Native American woman who was the last surviving member of her tribe, the Nicoleño. She lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 until her discovery in 1853. Scott O’Dell’s award-winning children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) was inspired by her story.
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In 1811, approximately 30 Aleutian hunters from Russian Alaska began scouring the California coast for otters, whose pelts were referred to as “soft gold.” Under contract to the Russian-American Company, the Aleuts were hired to hunt for several weeks on San Nicolas. This outing grew into a year. The otter population was decimated, and a bloody conflict between the Aleutians and islanders (who opposed the hunting) drastically reduced the population of the local men. By 1835, the island’s Native American population, which had once numbered 300, had shrunk to around 20. Some sources give the number as seven, all female except for one man named Black Hawk.
When news of the massacre reached the mainland, the Santa Barbara Mission decided to sponsor a rescue operation. In late November 1835, the schooner Peor es Nada, commanded by Charles Hubbard, left Monterey, California under contract to remove the remaining people living on San Nicolas Island. Upon arriving at the island, Hubbard’s party gathered the Indians on the beach and brought them aboard. Juana Maria, however, was not among them by the time a strong storm arose, and the Peor es Nada’s crew, realizing the imminent danger of being wrecked by the surf and rocks, panicked and sailed toward the mainland, leaving her behind. A more romantic version tells of Juana Maria diving overboard after realizing her child had been left behind, although archeologist Steven Schwartz notes “The story of her jumping overboard does not show up until the 1880s… By then the Victorian era is well underway, and literature takes on a flowery, even romantic flavor.”
This version is recorded by Juana Maria’s eventual rescuer, George Nidever, who heard it from a hunter who had been on the Peor es Nada; however, Nidever makes it clear he may be misremembering what he heard.
Hubbard brought the islanders to San Pedro Bay, where many chose to live at the San Gabriel Mission. The missions, despite their best intentions, had a high fatality rate, since the Indians had no immunity to Old World diseases. Black Hawk, the last male islander, reportedly became blind shortly thereafter and drowned after falling from a steep bank. Hubbard was unable to return for Juana Maria at the time, as he had orders to take a shipment of lumber to Monterey, and unfortunately, within a month the Peor es Nada sank at the entrance to San Francisco Bay after hitting a “heavy board” which caused the schooner to roll “over and over and over” until it sank. A lack of available ships in the mid-1830s delayed any further rescue attempts.
In 1850, Father Gonzales of the Santa Barbara Mission paid one Thomas Jeffries $200 to find Juana Maria, though he was unsuccessful. However, the tales Jeffries told upon returning managed to capture the imagination of George Nidever, a Santa Barbara fur trapper, who launched several expeditions of his own. He failed to find her at first, but on an attempt in the fall of 1853, one of Nidever’s men, Carl Dittman, discovered human footprints on the beach and pieces of seal blubber which had been left out to dry. Further investigation led to the discovery of Juana Maria, who was living on the island in a crude hut partially constructed of whale bones. She was dressed in a skirt made of greenish cormorant feathers. It was believed that she actually lived in a nearby cave; in 2012, a Naval archeologist believes he has found that cave and investigation is ongoing.
Afterwards, Juana Maria was taken to the Santa Barbara Mission, but was unable to communicate with anyone. The local Chumash Indians could not understand her, so the mission sent for a group of Tongva or Gabrieleño who had formerly lived on Santa Catalina Island, but they were unsuccessful as well. Four words and two songs recorded from Juana Maria suggest she spoke one of the Uto-Aztecan languages native to Southern California, but it is not clear to which branch it is related. A University of California, Los Angeles study by linguist Pamela Munro focusing on the words and songs suggests that her language was most similar to those of the Luiseños of Northern San Diego County and of the Juaneños near San Juan Capistrano. Both groups traded with the San Nicolas islanders and their languages may have had some influence. This evidence, when taken as a whole, suggests that Juana Maria was a native Nicoleño. However, other scholars contend that because all attempts to decipher her dialect by local Indians were in vain, Juana Maria may have been the descendant of an Aleut man and a Nicoleño widow.
Just seven weeks after arriving on the mainland, Juana Maria died. Modern analysis suggests she contracted dysentery, but Nidever claimed her fondness for green corn, vegetables and fresh fruit after years of little such nutrient-laden food caused the severe and ultimately fatal illness. Before she died, Father Gonzales baptized and christened her with the Spanish name Juana Maria. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the Nidever family plot at the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery. In 1928, a plaque commemorating her was placed at the site by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Juana Maria’s water basket, clothing and various artifacts, including bone needles which had been brought back from the island, were part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, but were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Her cormorant feather dress was apparently sent to the Vatican, but it appears to have been lost.
Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins was largely based on Juana Maria’s story. The novel’s protagonist, Karana, endures many of the trials that Juana Maria must have faced while alone on San Nicolás. In the 1964 film version of the novel, Celia Kaye played Karana.
In 2012, a U.S. Navy archeologist reported finding a site that may have been Juana Maria’s cave.