A few more notes about the Chumash and Nicoleño people…still following the mission trail.

I follow so many different Southern California trails that I am prone to hop, skip and jump from one story to the next. I decided it was time for me to wrap up a few loose ends.

Let’s head back up to Santa Barbara.

The 1786 “Queen” of the 21 Spanish missions is beautiful and full of interesting nooks and crannies. I can really only share just a few of the architectural details I found interesting, but you’ll certainly want to note the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and  Channel Islands.

If you hover over the photos you’ll find identification.

Real skull and crossbones were used to mark the entrance to Spanish cemeteries, so at the mission the stone carvings also mark the cemetery entrance. Gives a little pirate feel, doesn’t it?

The Lavanderia, or clothes washing basin, was built by the Chumash Indians of the Santa Barbara Mission in 1808 and was fed by water from a complex aqueduct system. The animal spout was also carved by a Chumash artisan. Not all missions had such designated spots for laundry, but the Chumash were known for their dedication to cleanliness.

This 120 year-old Australian Moreton Bay Fig is a beautiful cemetery centerpiece. I don’t know if it bears figs, but it is special.

Then just up the road from the Mission is this beautiful building.

We visited the Museum of Natural History so I could see the small exhibit dedicated to the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, and as interesting as that exhibit is, there was very little to learn about the Nicoleño people.

However, there is an entire room dedicated to the Chumash. The Chumash people thrived in California prehistory, with some settlements dating back at last 10,000 years. The Chumash came into contact with the European settlers in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo’s sailing vessels arrived on the coast of California. Cabrillo died on San Miguel Island, but his men brought back a diary containing names and population counts for many of the Chumash villages.

For those keeping score, some historians say that although Cabrillo died on San Miguel Island he was probably buried on Santa Catalina Island. I suppose record keeping wasn’t all that accurate in 1543.

During the Spanish mission years the Chumash were instrumental in building and working the coastal missions.

Although at one time the Chumash were a thriving culture numbering over 20,000 living along the California coastline, they succumbed to Spanish and American colonization. It’s a sad irony that the Chumash are now without their own land, as most Chumash bands, except for the Santa Ynez Samala Band, have not made the list of federally recognized tribes.

And to wrap up all I know for now about the Nicoleño people…all my lines of inquiry lead me back again to my own San Gabriel Mission.

There are nearly 6,000 Native Americans buried at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. And it is probable that some of those buried are Nicoleño people.

Imagine my surprise when I read that as the Nicoleño people lost their home on the Channel Islands after repeated attack from otter hunting Aleuts from Russian Alaska, many of the surviving Nicoleño chose to live at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

It’s fascinating for me to learn that one more of the stories I’ve been so interested in following leads the line of inquiry back to my city.

As I studied about Juana Maria it never occurred to me that her people might have a tie, slim though it is, to the San Gabriel Mission. It’s facts like this that keep me coming back. Of course, now I have more to investigate. Who knows where this will lead?

Plaque of Juana Maria

If you’re a migrating bird, why not choose Southern California for your winter layover?

I almost went for the obvious and titled this post, “The Super Bowl is for the Birds.” I only watch the game with one eye, and that eye isn’t fully on alert.

There’s football–and then for me, there’s almost anything else!

Of course, here in the United States it is Super Bowl Sunday.

I enjoy any excuse for gathering with my family, and I never begrudge others the pleasure of THE game. I just don’t share in the interest.

I’m discreet. I can sit here with a laptop while the die-hards enjoy THE game, parked in the back of the room, still comfortably near the food, but not occupying a hold down on television viewing prime real estate.

My mind is elsewhere.

I know it was only yesterday Punxsutawney Phil  gave us the good news that spring is just around the corner. I performed a celebratory happy dance in response and then somehow jumped right into dreams of summer.

My summer is ocean and beaches and the time to fully enjoy.

Yesterday morning I was planning to meet Aimee and the girls at a little preschool function.  Freeway closures for a movie shoot necessitated a slight detour.

But the change in route proved interesting. Sitting at a traffic light I was mesmerized by a flock of sea gulls. No, not the 80s band, but a flock of at least three dozen California Gulls. We live inland; not on the coast.  It’s not unusual  to see an occasional lone gull.  But a flock? Unusual.

Once in rapid population decline, they must be making a come back.


I would be more than happy to have my information updated by anyone in the know, but I think this gull may belong to the Heermann’s Gull family. He is distinctly different form the California Gull, sporting predominantly gray coloring.

3 pelicans in flight

Heermann’s also play well with Brown Pelican’s, which thanks to aggressive conservation measures are plentiful on our local beaches.

Once again, I do my best to determine the species of birds. Because Southern California is winter home to many migratory birds, I don’t always recognize the new faces.

I believe these little guys are a member of the curlew genus and may be Whimbrels. Whimbrels are waders in a very large family, probably not originally from California, but a frequent visitor.

The best way to learn is observation, but I don’t live at the ocean. I do use the guidance of books and museums.

During our recent trip to Santa Barbara we spent some time at the Natural History Museum and enjoyed the shore bird exhibit. I was particularly interested in identifying a Cormorant. This isn’t a bird I know, but after reading about the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island  I developed a greater interest.

Fish Eaters Cormorants

The woman, rescued after 18 solitary years on San Nicolas Island, wore a dress made of cormorant feathers. She had sewn the feather dress together using whale sinews. The birds (above) between the pelicans and the gulls are identified as cormorants.

There are some 40 species of cormorants and shags, but I don’t believe I have ever seen one other than behind glass!

We did have a very special little visit a month or so ago from a young Canadian Goose. He apparently temporarily lost his mother while on his migratory vacation to Laguna Beach.

If you find yourself separated from your flock, Laguna Beach is a nice place for your layover. The weather is mild, there is plenty to eat and the crowd is happy to see you.

I hope if I’ve labeled the birds incorrectly you’ll inform me! I do want to learn. There just isn’t enough time to learn about everything interesting is there?

Enjoy some warm thoughts this week. Spring is coming!

And for those who aren’t watching the Super Bowl, it just got interesting as they lost power in half the stadium. A delay could interfere with my Sunday evening Downton Abbey viewing. Now I’m paying attention!

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.