More California history–Following the trail of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

Our weekend trip to Santa Barbara was originally planned as a visit to the Santa Barbara Mission for The California Missions Tour of the San Luis Obispo Symphony. I love classical music, I love the Missions, and I love Santa Barbara. The concert was wonderful and I spent hours wandering the Mission grounds.

And a trip to the Mission also gave me an opportunity to fill in some gaps in a story I’ve been following recently.  My interest actually goes all the way back to childhood, but I only knew part of the story.

Do you know the book?

Island of the Blue Dolphins

I’ve been preoccupied and reading everything I can get my hands on to fill in additional information and answer questions ever since I read  an October 29th article in the Los Angeles Times. The title immediately grabbed me. “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found.”

Winner of the Newberry Medal in 1961, Scott O’Dell’s classic book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, was extremely popular when I was still very young. The book tells the story of a Native American girl named Karana who lives with her people on an island off the coast of Southern California, who through a series of missteps is left behind when the others leave the island to relocate to the mainland. Karana survives by living off the abundant natural resources on her island along with her amazing ability to adapt and care for herself. Alone. For years.

I don’t think I was ever aware the book was a fictional account of a true story.  But since learning this is true, I am reading as many accounts as I can find of  “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.”

The story that seems to emerge most often is that Russian fur traders brought groups of Alaskan sea otter hunters to the island and fighting often resulted in violence. By 1835 the Nicoleño population was dwindling and struggling for survival. The Franciscan fathers from the mainland sent a ship for the island survivors and a young woman leaped from the boat into the sea to swim back to shore for her child and was left behind, marooned on the island for the next 18 years. The child died, and she survived on her own until discovered by George Nidever, captain of a sailing schooner, in 1852.

The woman did her best to communicate, repeating several words and singing a song that no one was able to understand. The local Santa Barbara Chumash Indians did not understand her, and repeated attempts to introduce other Indian tongues were unsuccessful.

The story continues to end sadly that upon sanctuary at the Santa Barbara Mission she died seven weeks later from dysentery. On her death bed she was christened Juana Maria by the Padres.

Stories of the woman have been plentiful through the years, I’m learning now, and archaeologists and historians have done their best to fill in gaps left unrecorded.

For more than 20 years a navy archaeologist, Steve Schwartz, has scoured the island for clues about the woman’s island existence, while also attempting to learn more about the Nicoleño people. The recent discovery of a cave matching field notes written by a U.S. Coast Survey mapmaker who was sent to San Nicolas is believed to be part of the woman’s island protection, and further tests, including ground-penetrating radar will hopefully reveal a layer of relics from the Nicoleño people.

Juana Maria is buried at the Mission, however, as was customary at that time, her grave is unmarked. I was so glad to find a plaque dedicated to her memory on the Mission garden wall.

Mission Plaque

The stories of the Nicoleños and California’s Chumash Indians are worth revisiting later, so I am sure I will have more to tell you. But I’ll close for now with the sobering quote from the Santa Barbara Mission Book of Burials.

On 19 October of 1853 I gave burial here in this cemetery to the body of Juana Maria, Indian brought from the island of San Nicolas, and as there was no one who could understand her language she was baptized conditionally by Padre Sanchez; and so that it be certain I sign, Fr. José Maria de Jesús Gonzales [Rubio]
More from the mission in subsequent posts. I just can’t get enough.

53 thoughts on “More California history–Following the trail of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

  1. Now this is one very fascinating historical story, and I’m so glad that you share it with us… I look forward to hear anything more that you discover… wonderful post had me glued to the screen….

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the story of the Lone Woman, BD. I am so interested in learning more, including knowing more about the Channel Islands. They are just off our coast and I’ve never visited or learned very much. So I’m sure as I move forward in my personal explorations I’ll be eager to share what I learn! Thank you for showing interest, too.

    • I know that you understand the addictive nature of research, and on this story, I’m hooked! I cant’ quite get enough and the more I read the more I want to know about the indigenous people who lived on that island. It is a really powerful story, and as sad as it is, and there are details that are very sad, it’s interesting to me that her very tragic circumstances may be the only reason we really know anything at all about her people. I would love to have an “audience” with the archaeologists and ethnographers who have been studyng San Nicolas Island. 🙂

  2. What a story. I have certainly never heard of this before. What a life that poor woman lived! And to think after all that time she was rescued, only to be infected and die a few weeks later. It is all so tragic. Thanks for bringing this story to life – it would make a great movie xx

    • I think the story of the Lone Woman is certainly worthy of a movie, Charlie. The fictionalized story in the book I’ve referenced has some elements that are fairly close to reality, and the book was a huge sensation. It continues to be used in California curriculum. I understand that the movie made from the book was a huge flop! 😦 Maybe someone can try again!

  3. This is really interesting. There is almost always a dark side or hidden narrative within a given place/time in history… Someone whose story, or side of the story, is swept aside and forgotten.
    I also grew up in California and remember the book, but I never read it — perhaps it was assigned to a different “reading group” than mine.
    It sounds like the book is the typical romanticized/whitewashed treatment, whereas the true story including her untimely death was a bit more gritty. And “we” don’t like to talk about the gritty things, do we?
    I would like to learn more also, so I’ll be cheering for your ongoing research and reporting about this!

    • You know, Lori, I read the book again the other day, and it wasn’t nearly as sanitized as I would have thought! It dealt with death and the vicious way the Native Americans were treated by the otter hunters. Of course, is was geared for 10-12 year olds and not current day pre-adolescents. Early 1960 kids…a lot more naive! I always struggle when trying to consider mission life, though. The very missions that I love prospered at the expense of the Native populations. I would love to know how California 4th graders today are taught about this aspect of history. When I was a child we were taught about the “kindly” padres and the good they did for the benefit of the Indians. Do you think they’ve update the story to be a bit more accurate? Elementary teachers have some challenges, don’t they! 🙂

  4. A fascinating story, Debra, but so very tragic. Had she not been a Native American, I bet a boat would have been sent to find her almost immediately. 18 years alone. Incredible! With your love of your area’s history, this is one tale that you’ll truly enjoy researching. Thanks for sharing your findings with us. I cannot wait to read more.

    • I may not be able to learn much more about the Nicoleño woman, John, although I’m going to keep trying. I’m completely caught up in the story. But I do think I can learn more about her people, and it’s interesting that I’ve lived near the California coast my entire life and I’ve never heard of this band of people. I think that learning more about them and the timeline of their relocation may give me a little more color to the story. I’m with you on how in the world does someone get left behind for 18 years? From what I have heard there was at least a rumor of her existence on the mainland. So it does make you wonder if it was simply thought that she didn’t matter. I almost can’t think about that too much!

      • I have read that over the years there were several attempts to rescue the Indian woman, but she would always hide from the rescue party. Incidentally, Capt. George Nidever was my Great Great .Great Uncle.

        • My goodness, Paula! I’m so glad you stopped by to introduce yourself! I am so interested in anything I can learn about the Lone Woman, and I have so often thought of Captain Nidever, wondering what it would have been like for him to locate the woman and then to be unable to communicate with her. How many questions he must have had! Your relationship to the Captain is so interesting! 🙂 I’m so glad you have added to the conversation.

  5. What an amazing, story, Debra. I admit my heart broke for a woman who made this decision to be with her child. I hope fervently she found a kind of happiness during those intervening 18 years. You live in a fascinating place 🙂

    • From what I’ve been able to find about the Lone Woman she survived unbearable hardships, but mostly in the loss of her child and of course, isolation. But the mission records reveal that she was a very cheerful person who sang a little song trying to engage with others, and had a very pleasant personality. I am now trying to learn a little bit more about the Nicoleño people. To be honest I’d never even heard of this band, so there’s a lot to learn! 🙂

  6. Interesting story … and another in your interesting posts about history in your area! Wasn’t Santa Barbara one of the ports on that cruise I showed you?

    • Yes, Frank, Santa Barbara was on that itinerary! I think that SB is one of the greatest places to visit. I’d live there if we could afford a home there! The climate is just about perfect year round, it’s full of art, music and history, has the charm that comes with being a college town and then to top it off, lots of ocean! 🙂 You’ll probably hear me speak of it often. I am smitten…as you can tell. 🙂 The story of the Lone Woman is such a sad tale, and brings to light some interesting facts about the native populations. I hope I don’t overdo the sharing, but I sure do enjoy it! Thank you, Frank.

  7. I do know the book, “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” , Debra, but did not know it was based on a true story. How incredibly sad that her child died, leaving her alone on the island. I cannot begin to imagine enduring that kind of grief all alone like that. What a remarkably strong woman. It is interesting, isn’t it, how books captivate us as children and, if we are lucky, come to mean even more to us in adulthood as we learn more about the author or the character, even if it is fictional? I can’t wait to read more history from you, Debra.

    • I was almost positive that you’d know the book, Penny. And you’re so right that some books we read and they never really leave us. I have thought of the book so many times through the years and made sure that Aimee read it as a young girl, but it’s true I only recently learned it was based on a true story. I’m so glad I could share the story with you and as I learn a little more, which I hope to, I’ll be looking for ways to share. Thank you, Penny.

    • Thank you so much, Meg. The story of the Lone Woman is such an amazing story. To think of her surviving on her own completely fascinates me. I really thank you for your interest and compliment. I just love sharing the stories that interest me!:-)

  8. I don’t know the book in question, Debra, so the whole strange and sad story is new to me. She must have been a woman of immense resourcefulness and courage to have survived so long alone and remained sane and even cheerful. Such a pity that she succumbed to illness so soon after her rescue.

    • I agree, Perpetua, that the Lone Woman must have been just incredible to have survived at all! It is just a shame that there aren’t more written records of her life for study, but just knowing about her story has created a renewed interest in learning more about the Channel Islands and the native populations that first inhabited them.I suspect you’ll be hearing more…I can’t seem to turn this topic off! 🙂

  9. I know about the Island of the Blue Dolphins book, but I have never read it. But your post show it’s a very special and interesting story, so I might have to read the book. Thank you for incentive.

    • I think you’d really enjoy reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, Otto. I recently read it again, and I think it gives a very nice picture of the natural history of the Channel Islands, and perhaps one of the best ways to know something of the Nicoleño people. I’m glad you enjoyed the story of the Lone Woman. I am going to continue researching to see if I can find out a bit more about her.

  10. Her story is vaguely familiar, I’m thinking I may have seen her plaque at the mission. I have to confess though that I don’t remember that much about two missions that I’m supposed to write about soon, the Ventura and the Santa Barbara missions. I believe I last visited them back in 1987, so a very long time ago. There’s a huge tree in front of one of them, right? I should probably leave a link to your blog, but I don’t know how many people are all that interested. My mission posts have been the most time consuming and difficult to write and have had the lowest audience. I haven’t minded because I have learned a lot and enjoyed myself working on them.

    Thank you so much for your kind comment the other day. I really appreciate your friendship.

    • I know what you mean about the mission posts not necessarily bringing the most readers. I find them so interesting that it’s sometimes difficult for me to understand why everyone doesn’t. LOL! But that’s the way it is with anything we share, isn’t it? You can never be sure. I agree with you, though, that preparing the posts on the missions or a slice of history is satisfying to me. And I remember the information that much better for writing about it.

      I think the tree you are recalling is at the Santa Barbara mission. I’ll be sharing about that tree soon. It is a giant fig tree! The Santa Barbara Mission is the most beautiful of all of them in my opinion. Keep posting about them. I think those that do read about the missions enjoy, and maybe we spread a little bit of history along the way to others, too! 🙂

  11. Your post intrigued me so much that I went off to read up on the book and the lone woman. For good measure, I checked out the movie too. 😉

    The expectation of being reunited with others would keep me going for a time, but I wouldn’t want to be all alone for 18 years.

    • Nancy, I think the movie “Island of the Blue Dolphins” wasn’t very good, although I probably liked it when it first came out. The book, however, is really good. I even read it again recently to refresh my memory. I think you’d enjoy it.

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  13. I wonder why the movie wasn’t as interesting? Imagine living on an island all by yourself for what was it — 18 years? Fascinating stuff this! Thanks for sharing, Debra.

    • I saw the movie Island of the Blue Dolphins years and years ago and I remember thinking it was just fine. Now it gets “thumbs down” by critics, but you know how that goes! The critics are rarely kind! 🙂

  14. I know the book but I had no idea it was based on such a fascinating piece of history. I’ve only been to the SB mission once and hadn’t heard this amazing story. We can understand what it was like to be an Indian in the 1800’s when no one thought to go back for that woman and her child. Good god! I’ve got to read the book again.
    Great post Debra!

    • You’d enjoy reading Island of the Blue Dolphins as an adult, Rosie. I read it again just prior to going up to the Mission, and it takes on even greater poignancy as an adult. I didn’t realize it was based on a true story when I read it as a child. I’m trying to learn more about the Nicoleño people, but there really isn’t much recorded. I want to get out the Autry museum to see if there is anything…that could be another field trip we could share. 🙂

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  16. Dear Debra, I’m so glad that you suggested I read this posting. Glad and yet sad also. A poignant sadness for this young woman who lost her child and her tribe/nation and then her language was lost to others and so she was alone in so many ways.

    The book “Island of the Blue Dolphins” came out while I was in the convent and so I’ve never heard of it. I’ll go to the library website and see if they have it to check out.

    I do so hope you will do some research on the Nicoleno people. Peace.

    • The story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island has me completely enthralled, Col. I have been glad to share a little about her–what little there is to tell! The idea that she was rescued and couldn’t tell her story because of language, just haunts me!

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