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.

A Santa Barbara fortress to keep France and England from knocking on California’s door? Now isn’t that something!

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said, “My cat knows more about history than you do.” I don’t know what compels someone to slap that phrase on the back of their car, but it amused me. I have recently been focused on California history, filling in some gaps in what I have forgotten, or perhaps never knew in the first place, and the more I learn the more I realize I have more questions. I think the cat and I may be neck and neck.

All California 4th grade students get a smattering of history with a significant emphasis on the Mission period. And I live in San Gabriel, The City With a Mission, fourth in line of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. I’ve had an interest  in the missions for most of my life.

But gaps in my knowledge began to pop up this past spring while following an archaeological dig on property adjacent the San Gabriel Mission. Archaeologists and historians unearthed  items representing life among the Gabrieleno Indians and Spanish mission life. Shards of pottery, coins and religious sacramental artifacts will hopefully continue to reveal detail of life in the vicinity of the 1771 structure. If interested, you can read more about that dig here.

There are many lines of inquiry I’d like to follow in an attempt to dismantle myth and learn the historically accurate stories of California’s past. That would  include the history of California’s indigenous peoples.  According to your friend and mine, Wikipedia“California has the largest Native American population and largest number of distinct tribes of any US state.” Research could take some time.

And then there are seemingly endless points of interest along the way towards understanding the historical transitions between the Spanish Mission Period, Mexican California Rancho Days and the years of change when California was admitted as a free state in 1850.

What else interests me?

Well, there was this little event we call the Gold Rush? How about the Transcontinental Railroad? Westward Migration?

My stack of books and resource materials is growing at an alarming rate. There may be more to learn than I have days left, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time.

How to begin? I enjoy learning within context so it’s field trip time!

We went to Santa Barbara for a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert, but we still made time to visit El Presidio de Santa Barbara.

The presidios were Spanish military installations. This may surprise some of you, and perhaps many Californians don’t know, but Spain grabbed the Pacific Ocean as “MINE.”  Thanks to  Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his 1542 land-grab for Spain, California became a Spanish territory.

King Carlos III of Spain

Move forward a couple of hundred years and Spain was thinking that establishing Missions might be a good idea to continue to hold onto land. The English, French, and even Russians were showing some interest in California. Spain made a tactical decision to build the presidios, military fortresses, to oversee the mission districts and keep “others” out.

California was prime land even then!

Four presidios, San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, were each placed approximately a mile from the shoreline–safely distanced from the threat of a cannonball lobbed from a hostile foreign warship.

Only two sections of the original Santa Barbara Presidio quadrangle remain, but the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation is responsible for overseeing restoration and repair. The Preservation group is also responsible for archaeological excavations revealing scores of authentic period artifacts. Dozens of items from recent Presidio excavations are on exhibit.

The archaeological staff has also stabilized El Cuartel, the oldest adobe in the California State Parks system. It is an original 1788 Presidio adobe designed for a military family’s housing. The next phase of the project includes seismic retrofitting.

We toured the Casa de la Guerra adjacent the presidio, built by the fifth Presidio comandante in 1819. Richard Henry Dana included a description of a wedding reception held at the Casa in 1836 for Alfred Robinson and Ana Maria Antonia de la Guerra in his book Two Years Before the Mast.

Do you have a historical era or event you’re curious about ? What’s on your field trip list?

We may not be traveling much in the next couple of months but there are some ranchos not far from home I need to explore. And my pile of bibliographic material isn’t getting any smaller.  Having such a strong interest in a topic and creating a nice “home study” is a good way to focus and  breathe lighter! May I suggest you plan a local field trip! Take someone with you and have fun!