Mysterious Island: The Lone Woman of San Nicholas

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I have long wanted to a column on the fascinating story of Juana Maria, otherwise known as the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” and a bit of news last week has finally given me an excuse to do so.

Despite the fact that Scott O’Dell’s award-winning novel “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” has been required reading in many California schools for generations (and an excellent 1964 film), no doubt some of you are unfamiliar with the story.

I have long wanted to a column on the fascinating story of Juana Maria, otherwise known as the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” and a bit of news last week has finally given me an excuse to do so.

Despite the fact that Scott O’Dell’s award-winning novel “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” has been required reading in many California schools for generations (and an excellent 1964 film), no doubt some of you are unfamiliar with the story.

In 1835, the Native American woman and the remaining two dozen or so members of her tribe were removed from their island home ostensibly in a bid to protect the tiny group from the relentless attacks they suffered at the hands of Russian otter hunters and their Aleut crews.

According to a mix of legend and fact, as the evacuation ship was leaving the island, Juana Maria realized that her infant child was not on board.  She did what we would expect of any mother and dove overboard to swim back to the island.  Since a storm was brewing at the time, Captain Charles Hubbard decided against trying to fetch her back, vowing to return “in a few weeks” to finish the job.

Tragically, when Juana Maria made it ashore, she discovered her child had already been killed by the roving packs of wild dogs that inhabited the island at that time.  (By some accounts there was no child involved and, in fact, Juana Maria may never have even been aboard the ship.  One way or another, however, she was left on the island).

For various reasons, Hubbard’s rescue ship never returned and Juana Maria (her Native American name is unknown) spent the next 18 years on the island, fishing and hunting—and hiding from the dreaded Russians and Aleuts when they returned on their periodic hunting trips.

Finally, in 1853, Santa Barbara fur trapper George Nidever and his crew discovered her.  Tired of living on her own or perhaps no longer willing to run and hide, Juana Maria willingly returned to the mainland along with Nidever’s crew.  She was taken to Mission Santa Barbara where she lived for only another seven weeks before succumbing to dysentery or, by some accounts, tuberculosis.

The life of Juana Maria may have ended there, but her story has lived on for more than a century and only two weeks ago, a Navy archaeologist by the name of Steve Schwartz revealed that he believes he has finally found the long-lost cave that Juana Maria called home so many years ago.  Schwartz reported that he had been searching for the cave for 20 years.

“We’re 90 percent sure this is the Lone Woman’s cave,” Schwartz reported at the California Islands Symposium in Ventura on Oct. 29.  He told his fellow researchers that, to make the discovery, his crew of budding archaeologists had to remove nearly 500 tons of sand over from the cave—all in 5-gallon buckets.

Schwartz and his crew also discovered two redwood boxes protruding from a nearby cliff.  The boxes, he said, contained more than 200 stone blades, harpoon points, bone fishhooks and other tools all belonging to Juana Maria’s people.

Further research, he said, is needed, but the discoveries shed more light on—and perhaps close—the final chapter on the life of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available at Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

Mysterious Island: The Lone Woman of San Nicholas