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.